Florence Foster Jenkins was one of the finest coloratura sopranos in history -- but, alas, only in her own mind. To the rest of the world, she was an eccentric society matron whose passion for music was surpassed only by her utter lack of pitch and rhythm.
That didn't stop her from becoming a sensation in the New York music world of the 1930s and '40s; she gave annual recitals in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom to benefit her pet charities, and her 1944 concert at Carnegie Hall sold out in two hours. Apparently, her tone-deafness also made her oblivious to derision. She seems to have heard the hysterical laughter of her incredulous fans as something more rapturous and sublime.
All this is rich stuff for comedy, and Stephen Temperley employs it with delight in "Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins." But Temperley's play, now making its Boston debut at the Lyric Stage Company after successful runs in the Berkshires and on Broadway, is not a cruel joke. It's a profoundly funny, melancholy, and ultimately moving meditation on questions of artistry, ambition, and self-awareness.
Temperley holds it all together by giving us not just Jenkins but her longtime accompanist, the implausibly named Cosme McMoon. When he first meets "Madame J," McMoon is an impoverished composer of art songs who agrees reluctantly to accompany her first public recital -- only for the money, we assume. Over the course of 12 years, though, as they continue to perform together, McMoon comes to admire and, perhaps, even envy Madame J for the sincere joy and fulfillment she finds in pursuing her "art."
McMoon's role is a tricky one: He grows fond of his patron, even as he winces at her dreadful singing, and so he is forever walking the delicate line between candor and kindness. He wants the money, of course, but he also wants to protect her from realizing that she's a joke -- and he's occasionally incredulous, as are we, that she really can't hear just how awful she sounds.
She does sound just awful at the Lyric, thanks to the brilliant performance of Leigh Barrett. The many admirers of Barrett's radiant voice and sensitive acting have something else to marvel at here: her terrifically bad, expertly incompetent, zanily solemn, heartbreakingly funny rendition of Jenkins's unique contributions to vocal performance. The key is that Barrett never condescends to her character; she takes her as seriously as Jenkins apparently took herself, and that makes her all the funnier.
Meanwhile, Will McGarrahan gives McMoon a bittersweet blend of affection and acerbity that feels just right. He goggles just enough at the sourest notes; more challengingly, he develops over the play's two hours from a glibly cynical lounge pianist to something sadder and more interesting: a man who could, perhaps, have been an artist but never quite put enough faith in his talent, and who both respects and resents the woman who had faith in her own to spare.
McGarrahan displays a nice touch on the piano, both by himself and in the hysterically awful snippets of performance with Madame. The comedy is abetted by David Costa-Cabral's perfectly ridiculous costumes, from a mantilla-and-flounce Mexican peasant getup to a seraphic white robe, complete with feathered wings.
Skip Curtiss's set wisely stays simple, with just a hint of gilt to suggest the Ritz and some atmospheric lighting by Robert Cordella. Like the design, Spiro Veloudos's direction doesn't push too hard or turn the humor into mere jokiness. Instead, we get a hilarious but sweet portrait of Florence Foster Jenkins, a singer whose like (with any luck) we shall not hear again.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.