Sunday, December 18, 2005

Like a Bird

You're going to have to take my word for my sincerity when I say that Souvenir at the Lyceum has convinced me that I simply must revisit the work of Florence Foster Jenkins. It's not that it's a particularly good play, though it's not awful or even bad exactly. It's just that Judy Kaye, singing in the style of FFJ (thank god the era of everyone being some variant on J-Lo is over and we don't have to call her Flo Fo Jo) most of the time misses that ineffable quality that keeps us listening sixty years on. Yeah, I know. You're thinking "that quality is known as sucking." Only as my charming theater-going companion reminded me, The Glory??? of the Human Voice is usually filled out with a Foster-Jenkensian reading of Faust not including the lady herself, marked by full-throttle suckage, and I know no-one that dotes on it as we all, I assume, dote on FFJ. There's something else going on with her singing, it does seem. It's dreadful and then something else, something very likeable and a little bit addictive. Back in the days of cassette tapes, lads and lassies, I used to have a program I had taped off of the classical station in which the announcer, for yuks, had promised to play an immortal recording of "Der Holle Rache," and followed through with Foster Jenkins, and then immediately after with the searing Edda Moser. I miss the pairing, truly.

Judy Kaye, whose bio informs us she has sung with the Santa Fe Opera--and we're not talking the Countess of Krakenthorp; Eurydice and Musetta are listed--does indeed make rather an athletic spectacle of going after the almost aleatory aesthetic of Madame J's vocal style. It's not easy singing like that, as I particularly noticed during a scene when Kaye is additionally called upon to march in place completely out of time both to the piano and to what she is singing. In a performance writ a few points too large, I thought this was a little coup de theatre. During the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria, she does hit upon the real sound as we hear it on record, and so some of its pathetic, unhinged sincerity. Much of the time, however, as in the initial affront of Caro Nome, she seems to gild the lily. Do I even need to type this next sentence? Florence Foster Jenkins doesn't really need embellishing.

As a small note of no real significance, even less than usual I should say, I'm a little curious why they told the story of Jenkins' cab accident and left out the funniest line of FFJ lore, wherein she marvels at how she now can sing "higher an f than ever before." It's apocryphal, but so's the whole play.

Lilygilding is I suppose the guiding aesthetic in this production. Donald Corren, as Cosme McMoon does his fair share of pulling faces and playing to the folks on 43rd street, and then at other moments he displays a real finesse. It's tough to see how a play that has him reminiscing about a soldier he gave an extra ticket to and tossing off the little bit of heartbreak, "I wondered what life had got in store to temper his enthusiasm," can play like a sandbox bully for so much of the evening. But what I think most makes an intermittently frustrating trifle out of a subject with all kinds of possibilities is the jumping about and yipping of Judy Kaye. FFJ comes out a sort of hyperactive Hyacinth Bucket, and in combination with the singing and despite the contrast of a few quiet scenes played relatively deftly for pathos, it makes her hard to like or loathe, to have any substantial feelings about. Maybe it's a theater-going pecadillo of my own, but I find this kind of broad, schematic idea-world deeply uninvolving.

The Carnegie Hall scene itself got lots of laughs, or I think it did. Someone made the decision to pipe in sound footage of people laughing and applauding, so it got hard to say what was real and what was Memorex. Probably a great way, all told, to make people think they'd experience great hilarity. I'm reminded of a story from someone I used to know that now that he had been subjected to Mama Mia! with visiting relatives, he realized that the press about people dancing in the aisles failed to mention the actors storming said aisles and commanding people to dance. And I must say the moment of cinematic expressionism that ended the recital scene rubbed me entirely wrong, struck me as tonally wildly out of place.

The play ends with McMoon asking us to imagine the music, the lovely music, that Madame J hears in her head while howling at us like a stuck pig. And then, and I keep going back and forth over whether this was a mistake, Ms. Kaye comes onstage and sings the Ave Maria, this time straight. It's actually a pretty good performance (with just a hint of a late Sills bleat) but maybe not enough so to prop up the sentimental little paean to self-expression it follows. Without a moment of true transcendence, too many questions about money, delusion, dependence, and the like hang out by the theater door, poke at us as we pick up our hats and coats, and ask why they weren't invited onstage.

I don't feel entirely at ease turning up my nose at a play about opera that actually made it to broadway, but bearing in mind the vast influence of my blog, I think I'll sleep ok just the same. In a late scene of the play following the legendary Carnegie Hall recital, Kaye/Jenkins speaks of the past and of the lost joy of anticipation, saying "until today I had this in front of me." I couldn't help but think of a famous rebuke to a review:
I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.

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