Monday, February 19, 2007

Livin' la diva loca

A blight at the opera - Leigh Barrett and Will McGarrahan in Souvenir.

It ain't over, as they say, till the fat lady sings - but what if the fat lady can't sing? What then?

It's a question worth pondering in the case of Florence Foster Jenkins, the wannabe "diva" who couldn't sing a note, but still sold out Carnegie Hall, and whose legend grows each passing year - and who now has inspired Souvenir, a charming two-hander by Stephen Temperley, which currently has audience rolling in the aisles (and clutching their ears) at the Lyric Stage.

As you might guess from its title, Souvenir is styled as a reminiscence, by one Cosme McMoon, he of the heavenly pseudonym who accompanied Ms. Jenkins on her not-so bon voyage from the salons of high society to the Carnegie stage. McMoon isn't merely our guide, however, he's also our surrogate, in that he's constantly trying to sound the mystery of Florence's sound - as in, couldn't she hear how awful she was?

For this Florence was no nightingale. Rather, her vocal stylings have been compared to those of a strangled chicken - but imagine the chicken thrilling to its death throes, and you have more the idea. For this off-coloratura was never merely flat, nor sharp - instead she swooped down on her notes with dionysiac abandon, often skidding right over them but rarely pausing to note their passing. Add to this a clumsy, wayward sense of rhythm and truly random dynamics, and you've got an anti-voice for the ages, one that never fails to reduce audiences to helpless fits of laughter (if you doubt me, listen for yourself).

Singing so badly may not sound like a challenge - but believe it or not, Ms. Jenkins had range. When she molested Mozart's "Queen of the Night", she actually groped the old girl close to her famous high F. So to impersonate "Madame J." (as she's known in the play) requires real pipes - they've just got to sound as cracked as their owner.

Luckily, in local star Leigh Barrett, the Lyric has found just the chanteuse for the job (at left, in her "Ave Maria" get-up); although the timbre of her voice is different from that of Ms. Jenkins - if her voice had a timbre - Ms. Barrett's rendering of the famous squawk is off-pitch-perfect, and her performances are wittily perverse essays in how to not hit your note in ever-more-creative ways. Now she's sharp, now she's flat, now she's in a tone-deaf orgy of melisma that would have left even Simon Cowell speechless.

Listening to Jenkins (waiting in her own wings, at right), you almost have to assume her notes were camp (and essayed some twenty years before Susan Sontag's). But were they? Or was Jenkins a deluded naif, an innocent who never realized the tears she precipitated were gifts of the comic, rather than the tragic, muse? This is the crux of Souvenir, and Temperley manages to wring a good deal of poignant intrigue from the question. For are any of us truly aware of how we sound? (No.) And how many of us live up to our own ideals? (Not many.) Given this perspective, Ms. Jenkins' deluded service to her muse begins to look valiant - and New York's indulgence of her monomania almost kind.

Unless, of course, the bubble pops, and the scales fall from the diva's eyes; it's this possibility that lends Souvenir what suspense it has, as Jenkins is encouraged to venture from small concerts for friends to the confines of the studio (you can buy her albums here) and then to the bright lights of Carnegie Hall, with Cosme McMoon hanging on her hem all the way.

As McMoon, Will McGarrahan at first makes one long for the warmer presence of Donald Corren, his predecessor on Broadway; but as the play progresses, McGarrahan more successfully mines his own character's self-aware mediocrity, and even traces the arc of a convincing May/December, gay/straight romance between the two. After all, it's not lost on the insecure McMoon (or his creator, the only somewhat-successful Temperley) that while he's artistically competent, his career is going nowhere without the utterly confident Madame J. - so who's the real fool? Barrett, meanwhile, although vocally superb, is more reliant on caricature in her acting, to slightly diminishing returns. On Broadway, Judy Kaye channeled Margaret Dumont - while Barrett's inspiration is clearly Hyacinth Bucket, Patricia Routledge's transparent social climber from Keeping Up Appearances. This is fine as far it goes, but perhaps Kaye's determined pachyderm, rather more secure in her own superiority and snobbery, had longer legs. Somehow Barrett lacks the edge of cognitive mystery that Kaye maintained - and she doesn't quite reach the sense of apotheosis that the Carnegie Hall appearance should have (this is partly the fault of director Veloudos, who so front-loads his farce that there's nowhere for the play to go in its second act).

Still, it will be a long time before I'll forget Barrett tearing through "The Jewel Song," or brandishing her maraca like a mallet (her costumes, which both toast and roast the matronly elegance of thirties New York, are by the talented David Costa-Cabral, while the spare, elegant set - the best at the Lyric in years - is by Skip Curtiss). With this kind of back-up, the divine Madame J. couldn't ask for a more memorable Souvenir.

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