Florence Foster Jenkins could most easily have summed up her, um, art, by paraphrasing a line from The Importance of Being Earnest: "I don't sing accurately - anyone can sing accurately - but I sing with wonderful expression." Excruciating expression.
Jenkins, whose sold-out recital at Carnegie Hall in 1944 is the stuff of legend, inspired Stephen Temperley's amusing, affectionate, somewhat-overpadded show Souvenir, which opened Thursday at Center Stage with the original stars of the 2005 Broadway production.
It's not easy to understand what was going on inside this independently wealthy woman who felt she just had to share her gift, but it's painfully easy to laugh at the results.
The recordings Jenkins made have had listeners doubling over for decades, carrying on a tradition that started as early as 1912, when she began giving recitals for women's clubs in New York. She presented herself in annual concerts at the Ritz ballroom that drew hundreds of the curious and cruel, who couldn't get enough of the spectacle. And then, a month before her death at 76, she brought down the house at Carnegie Hall.
As Philip Lieson Miller puts it in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, poor Jenkins "seems to have taken herself seriously, and to have been unaware of the gulf that lay between her technique and the repertory she undertook."
That lack of awareness, or just plain self-delusion, is brilliantly conveyed in Souvenir by Judy Kaye in a pitch-perfect portrayal of a habitually pitch-shy woman who fancies herself "a true coloratura," and who will find fault with her long-suffering piano accompanist before ever realizing she may have strayed ever so wide of the mark.
Temperley's vehicle for this homage to the flamboyantly inept Jenkins revolves around that accompanist, the magnificently named Cosm? McMoon, who, on R. Michael Miller's quietly stylish unit set, reminiscences about his days with the indelible un-singer. Donald Corren's performance as the gay, dry-witted pianist is as deftly shaded as his playing, which includes snippets of pop songs - "Crazy Rhythm" provides a telling leitmotif.
As revealed here, McMoon is something of Joe Gillis from Sunset Boulevard (minus the physical stuff, of course), drawn into the orbit of an impossible, but oddly irresistible, creature and somehow coaxed into abandoning his qualms and principles to feed her inflamed and oblivious ego.
Corren relishes each line and aside along the way as he provides the narrative thread. The play covers a good deal of ground in a tight first act, but the second, largely concerned with the Carnegie carnival, strangely loses momentum, even as we see Jenkins careen wildly through various arias, each with its own costume.
The payoff comes with a rather touching final scene that allows the blinders to fall from the dubious diva's eyes, even as the blinders go momentarily onto the audience's ears - a neatly calculated trick.
Kaye so thoroughly inhabits the role that it's hard not to feel sorry for Jenkins, and to feel just a little embarrassed about all the mockery. Her delivery of the line "I am not a silly woman" has a remarkably touching effect, even as it sounds totally absurd.
It takes great technical skill to sing deliberately far off-key, and Kaye's experience as a first-rate vocalist serves her well at every spine-curdling turn. She manages to sing even worse than Jenkins, whose recordings reveal at least occasional approximations of the intended notes and rhythmic values.
These days, we're used to inept vocalists on the likes of American Idol, gaining their 15 seconds or minutes of attention. And not long ago, a self-proclaimed coloratura got herself regularly onto TV (albeit only a cable access channel), and you can still find clips of the gloriously bad Mari Lyn on YouTube, carrying on the Florence Foster Jenkins tradition with gusto and bad wigs.
But, as Temperley's diverting souvenir reminds us, the indelible Jenkins will, by virtue of sheer audacity and imagination, always reign over all other blissfully unstoppable non-talents.
if you go
Souvenir continues through May 24 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10-$60. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage,org.