Each season, the early episodes of “American Idol” feature train-wreck auditions from tone-deaf contestants. Judges mock the hapless participants, who seem genuinely convinced of their musical gifts and imminent stardom. This “so-bad-it’s-good” appeal is part of what draws viewers to reality television. But can audience schadenfreude support a music career that sells records and concert tickets? For opera diva Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), it did.
The singer who couldn’t sing and didn’t know it became the toast of New York City in the 1930s and ’40s. Stephen Temperley’s two-person play Souvenir (2004) affectionately retells Jenkins’ story through the eyes of her pianist, Cosme McMoon (1901-1980). For Vermont Stage Company, Carl J. Danielsen and Nancy Johnston give confident, well-matched performances as the oddly endearing pair. Supported by refined technical elements and Sara Lampert Hoover’s sure-handed direction, the talented duo turns the off-key warbler’s tale into a pitch-perfect evening of theater.
Temperley’s script, subtitled A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, sticks closely to the stranger-than-fiction facts. The action opens 20 years after the diva’s death, as McMoon plays a late-night bar gig and recounts his dozen years as Jenkins’ accompanist. He reminisces with theatergoers as if they are bar patrons who still remember the singer and her, um, achievements. Most scenes unfold as flashbacks with McMoon and Jenkins together, rehearsing or performing.
The wealthy socialite’s passion for singing opera pairs remarkably with her completely unfounded, yet utterly firm, faith in her musical talent. McMoon initially agrees to help her prepare for one recital at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel — a quick six-week assignment to pay his rent. He fears a longer association might damage his reputation, and his eardrums. But he soon finds it hard to resist Jenkins’ childlike belief in herself and genuine devotion to art. “What matters most is the music you hear in your head,” she muses. “The impossible ideal.”
As the years pass, her innocence and enthusiasm also trigger McMoon’s protective instinct. He knows the public clamors for recordings and concerts to amuse themselves with how badly she fails. “If I couldn’t stop her making a fool of herself,” he reasons, “I could at least limit the damage.” Their artistic partnership faces its biggest challenge when the aging soprano gets an invite to perform at Carnegie Hall. Can McMoon shield her from such a huge, hungry crowd?
As both raconteur and participant in the story, McMoon is onstage for every minute of the show. Danielsen excels in the demanding role. His face conveys what the young artist can’t verbalize. Sharply raised eyebrows register shock; a deeply furrowed forehead expresses confusion and concern. During many scenes, McMoon also plays the piano, which Danielsen does with effortless polish. He supports the soprano on classical numbers, but also accompanies himself. His lyrical tenor voice shines on moody standards such as “One for My Baby.”
The historical Jenkins was laughed at; Johnston expertly plays Temperley’s character as someone the audience wants to laugh with. Johnston uses patrician manners, diction and grooming to portray Jenkins as a charming blend of sincere and out of touch. Humanizing details, such as a hyena-like giggle, soften the impact of Jenkins’ abuse of the actual arias. And Johnston’s musicianship is astonishing. It takes incredible focus to sing precisely off-pitch and deliberately out of rhythm with such animation and ardor.
A mocha-brown baby grand piano, on loan from a VSC patron, anchors Jeff Modereger’s swanky set. Most of the action takes place in Jenkins’ well-appointed music room. The furnishings reflect her traditional taste: cream wainscoting, sage floral wallpaper, Oriental carpets and oak floors. French doors allow Jenkins to enter through the rear wall.
Lighting designer Jeffrey E. Salzberg does an amazing job of conjuring different locations just by altering how the set is lit. To open the show, he creates the atmosphere of a dusky dive, with blue and purple lights focused tightly on McMoon at the piano. A swift transition that bathes the whole stage in warm tones quickly transforms it into the music room. The bar ambiance returns for brief interludes, allowing McMoon to shift between remembering and reliving his experiences.
Rachel Kurland’s lovely, lavish costumes help convey the two sides of Jenkins’ personality. The socialite wears beautifully tailored dresses in tasteful, solid colors, paired with ladylike accessories including an embroidered handkerchief. The diva, on the other hand, sports outrageously overembellished garb onstage, matching clothes to song lyrics in literal, über-cheesy ways. Kurland embraces Jenkins’ joie de fromage with a brace of delightfully garish getups to wear while singing. McMoon, in a navy suit, is the perfect visual foil, calm and neutral.
On the story’s surface, McMoon is also Jenkins’ emotional foil. As her fame grows, he becomes her protector. But looking back, he recognizes that her certainty — however misguided — made her formidable, not fragile. “So long as we’re together, there is nothing we can’t do,” she tells him. And he realizes that their friendship also made him strong.
Souvenir, directed by Sara Lampert Hoover, produced by Vermont Stage Company. FlynnSpace, Burlington. February 3-7, Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday & Sunday at 2 p.m. $27-32.50. Also at Town Hall Theater, Middlebury. February 11-13, Thursday & Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m & 8 p.m. $25.