If you haven’t heard of Florence Foster Jenkins, you will soon.
The story of Jenkins, a socialite who wanted desperately to have a singing career — but who couldn’t sing a note — will be told later this year in a movie starring Meryl Streep.
Before that, though, get yourself to Lanesboro to see the Commonweal Theatre’s production of “Souvenir,” with Stela Burdt as Jenkins and Stephen Houtz as her accompanist-mentor-enabler, Cosme McMoon. As word spreads, this show will be a summer-time hit at the Commonweal.
The play, written by Stephen Temperley and directed for the Commonweal by Los Angeles-based playwright Alan Bailey, has McMoon looking back to the 12 years he spent with Jenkins during the 1930s and 1940s. She built a career based, apparently unknown to her, on laughter more than appreciation. Audiences flocked to hear Jenkins butcher some of the great works of classical music, until she finally even sold out Carnegie Hall.
This is a role tailor-made for Burdt. As a gifted singer herself, she recognizes that music is often heard not with the ear, but with the heart. Jenkins’ heart heard what she wished to be — a world-class singer. “She believed the way a child believes,” McMoon says.
Burdt employs a patrician speaking voice that is more melodious than the off-pitch singing of Jenkins. She gives Jenkins a surprising vulnerability behind the veneer, and brings a Lucille Ball-like quality to some of the Carnegie Hall numbers.
Houtz, a veteran Twin Cities singer and actor, narrates the story in flashbacks, starting with his own incredulous reactions to Jenkins’ singing, and culminating with his admiration for her gumption and his protection of her psyche. In some ways, this play is as much his story as it is hers. As McMoon wonders aloud at one point, was he playing to her vanity, or to his?
It’s impossible to see this play and not admire the efforts of costume designer Janis Martin. Nearly every scene sees Jenkins in a different gown, and for the Carnegie Hall concert, Jenkins wore a wildly different ensemble for each song.
For all of the fun and laughter, most of it at Jenkins’ expense, this play ends with a poignancy that might catch some in the audience off guard as Burdt steps forward to deliver a stunning finale.
What’s remarkable is that “Souvenir” seems almost effortless in its excellence. It is easily one of the most luminous productions of recent seasons at the Commonweal.