Well, I am on my way to London in a few hours, even though I have barely recovered from my trip to New York City, a souvenir of which is a lingering cold. Still, I am looking forward to a weekend in the metropolis, where I’ll be reunited with my best pal to celebrate his birthday and the twentieth anniversary of our friendship. We used to have our annual get-togethers in the Big Apple, but the Big Smoke will do.
While there, I would love for us to take in a few shows, impervious as he is to the wonders of the “wooden O.” I, for one, have had some terrific theatrical experiences lately, including a rare staging of the outrageously bloody Revenger’s Tragedy at New York City’s Red Bull Theater, an all-male production of The Winter’s Tale by the touring Propeller company, and an out-of-tuneful Broadway evening with Judy Kaye in Souvenir. True, the 9 December issue of Entertainment Weekly did not exactly endorse Souvenir, reviewer Thom Geier calling Stephen Temperley’s play “too broad, too shallow, and far too long for [its] modest pleasures.” Still, Kaye is marvellous in the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, the tone-deaf soprano and unlikely recording artist who managed to fill seats and thrill audiences in NYC’s Carnegie Hall, unaware that many came to gawk and deride, not to admire her.
I have seen musical-comedienne Kaye several times onstage and even had an after-theater drink with her, back in November 1992, when she played Sweeney Todd‘s Mrs. Lovett at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Her portrayal of the real-life phenomenon that was Florence Foster Jenkins managed at once to amuse and touch me, even though Souvenir, as written by Temperley, is slight, repetitive, and less than incisive.
You’ll have to get up close and zoom in on Kaye’s features—the snare and shelter of Jenkins’s oblivion expressing itself in innocent smiles and youthful exuberance, the firm belief in her musical disabilities as she refuses to heed the at fist cautioning then caustic words from her hapless accompanist, and the terror of recognition when at last she discerns the cruel laughter of the crowd—to wrest any oomphs from Temperley’s pleasant and chuckles-filled survey of the dubious diva’s odd career. Fortunately, I sat in the third row. Anyone back on the balcony is unlikely to get half as much out of this play, which is suited to a smaller venue than Broadway’s grand Lyceum.
Upon returning to the UK, I learned that another dramatization of Jenkins’s life, conceived by another playwright (Peter Quilter), is currently playing in London. Called Glorious, this version stars Maureen Lipman, whom I have last seen opposite Ian McKellen in the pantomime Aladdin at the Old Vic. Ms. Lipman hasn’t got Kaye’s pipes, but her acting garnered some favorable notices. I am sufficiently intrigued by Jenkins’s antics to judge her performance myself later this year.
How come there are two plays running simultaneously about a 1930s New York City curiosity, a novelty act who, like those making a spectacle of themselves during last year’s American Idol auditions, has become an old joke few can recall? It is encouraging, somehow. Ready to rediscover most anything, the public might yet turn a favourable ear to the golden age of radio. I sure wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to . . .