For Stela Burdt, there is a particular difficulty involved in her role as a singer in “Souvenir,” the new Commonweal Theatre play: She has to sing poorly on purpose.
In “Souvenir,” which opens with a preview performance Friday, May 6, Burdt plays the Manhattan socialite Florence Foster Jenkins who, in the 1930s and 1940s, fancied herself a world-class vocalist. Unfortunately, Jenkins couldn’t carry a tune.
No matter, she financed her own career and eventually performed at Carnegie Hall, all the while oblivious to the effect she was having on audiences.
“She’s a lovable character, gentle and very child-like,” Burdt said. “She’s full of awe and wonder and belief in herself. She’s very sweet and endearing.”
But there remains this hitch for a singer and actor: How to train yourself to sing off-key.
“The singing is a challenge, that’s for sure,” Burdt said.
That’s why Burdt has been working with David Judisch, former Luther College music professor, to learn how to sing off-key.
“He said he’s never had to teach someone to sing badly,” Burdt said. The difficulty comes in singing poorly without damaging your voice or your habits. “I can make some awful sounds, but in a way that would be hurtful,” she said.
At recent rehearsals, Burdt said, director Alan Bailey has admonished her at times, saying, “That was a little too close to the right pitch.”
However, Burdt said, “We don’t want Florence to be so off-pitch that it becomes cartoonish.”
Perhaps some in her audience did see Jenkins as a cartoon, with her over-the-top costumes, awkward stage presence, illusions of stardom and sour singing.
But, Burdt said, “I would like to think people are laughing with her,” rather than at her.
“For her, there’s nothing to be gained financially by singing,” Burdt said. “But this is really just about the joy of making music. That’s what’s so delightful.”
The play also features Stephen Houtz as pianist Cosme McMoon, Jenkins’ long-time accompanist. “He became her confidant and her coach,” Burdt said. “He told her the truth as well as he could.”
The play covers a period of roughly a dozen years, and Burdt will wear at least a dozen different costumes. “She had a lot of money and her costumes show that,” Burdt said.
Although largely a comedy, “Souvenir” is also poignant and bittersweet.
“There are some moments in this play I hope people will be very moved by,” Burdt said. “It’s funny and it’s dramatic.”
If singing off-key isn’t enough of a challenge, performing a two-person play is a major undertaking for the actors. The key? “Learning all the lines,” Burdt said. “It’s just the two of us out there.”
For Burdt, though, it’s a welcome return to full company membership at the Commonweal after taking a hiatus for a few years.
“It’s lovely being back,” she said. “It’s very different because now I have a child, and it’s more complicated for day care and rehearsals. But I really love being back, I love connecting with people.”
When: Previews start Friday, official opening is May 14.
Where: Commonweal Theatre
Tickets: $35; 800-657-7025