Florence Foster Jenkins was the toast of New York in the ‘30s and ‘40s not because she could sing like a diva but because she couldn’t. Yet her Carnegie Hall appearance sold out immediately! If you doubt such a phenomenon could happen today, I need only remind you of the mania surrounding the American Idol contestant whose excruciating “She Bang” was aired incessantly on TV and radio after the fact.
The Lyric Stage’s hilarious SOUVENIR has the debonair Will McGarrahan valiantly pounding the correct notes on the piano while Leigh Barrett, as the indomitable Mrs. Jenkins “obfuscates” tempo and pitch as well as the notes. In the course of the Stephen Temperley’s “Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” McGarrahan becomes her knight in shining armor, protecting her from the jeers and laughter of audiences who come only to witness the spectacle. The two even frolic through a delightful duet, believe it or not.
Director Spiro Veloudos finds the heart of the story in their affection for each other and in Mrs. Jenkins’ unconscious vulnerability. Barrett delivers, tracing Verdi’s notes in the air with her hands as she lacerates Gilda’s “Caro Nome” with her voice. Barrett’s diva is clearly batty, playing the coquette at age seventy, dressed as a flouncing senorita (in fabulous authentic costumes by David Costa-Cabral). What could be more genuine or more touching than her devotion to her beloved accompanist as she debuts his Mexican Serenade in Carnegie Hall. Opera fanatics may blanch at the prospect of hearing a clanging “Bell Song” from Lakmé but Veloudos and company make it so deliciously awful that it’s deliriously funny.