It’s human nature to make fun of the clueless but also to root for the underdog. Both sentiments are evoked by Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” a play about Florence Foster Jenkins, the talentless socialite who yearned to be an opera singer. Hot Summer Nights’ production offers laughs and heart tugs from two performers of unquestionable talent.
Jenkins used her inheritance to move to New York City for voice lessons and an entrance into society. She began giving recitals in 1912, continuing up to her death in 1944. She developed a fan base that came, not to hear her golden tones, but to guffaw at her total lack of pitch and rhythm.
In 1932, Cosmé McMoon, a young pianist whose ambitions were not paying the rent, agreed to accompany Jenkins but quickly found that any suggestion of off-kilter singing was met with complete denial. He soon gave in, played along and eventually became quite protective because of the unflagging commitment to her dreams. He bravely accompanied her infamous Carnegie Hall recital, a month before her death at 76.
Temperley goes much deeper than merely making fun of the screeching, providing thoughtful commentary on what creates happiness and how the arts affect us. In a supper club 20 years after Jenkins’ death, McMoon is taking a break from his pianist’s duties. He speaks directly to the audience from the piano, his memories evolving into a series of scenes with Jenkins as they rehearse for various performances, leading up to a re-creation of the Carnegie Hall debacle.
Lisa Jolley has the vocal chops to sing off-key on purpose (a difficult feat) and convincingly plays Jenkins’ blinkered dedication to what she thinks is prodigious talent. Jolley’s rather knockabout demeanor doesn’t suggest Jenkins’ “grande dame” bearing, but her comic timing and vocal sendups, combined with movingly tender moments in act two, bring the audience to its feet.
Jonas Cohen holds his own as McMoon, balancing hilarious attempts to stifle his shocked reactions with nuanced reflections on his own failures. He plays classical accompaniment and classic pop tunes with equal aplomb.
Director Richard Roland keeps the pace tight and laughter constant but never shorts the loving dynamics of this endearing coupling. Technical elements are minimal, but the spotlight is on the actors who rightly deserve it.