An injured bird? A yelping puppy? No, it’s the sound of Florence Foster Jenkins, an opera singer famous for her extreme lack of talent and hilarious attempts at singing. Back by popular demand, the Madison Theatre Guild will present a second run of “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins” at the Bartell, opening Friday.
“Souvenir” tells the life story of Jenkins (Terry Kiss Frank), who became a cult phenomenon through being a terrible singer with no sense of pitch, tone or rhythm. Set in the 1960s, the play is told in flashbacks by her faithful accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Taras Nahirniak).
Jenkins’ career culminated in 1944 with a sold-out performance in Carnegie Hall. When she sung technically difficult arias typically performed by singers with extreme precision and beauty, she butchered them completely with a lack of pitch and rhythm ability, and the audience roared with laughter.
Google “Florence Foster Jenkins” on YouTube, and the first hit you’ll find is Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” at the top of the page. Click play and you’ll notice she has no capacity for melody or tempo, and the piano frequently slows down or speeds up to keep up with her. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish whether the voice you hear is that of a human or strange noises made by animals. Much worse than any “American Idol” audition gone ugly, she is definitely worth a listen.
“[Her voice] makes your face sort of scrunch up when you hear it,” director Betty Thompson said.
Frank, who is in fact an established singer with Madison Opera, will be singing in the unique style of Jenkins.
“She is quite capable of singing beautifully and … not,” Diamond said.
The play largely explores the relationship that evolved between McMoon and Jenkins as McMoon got accustomed to her musical fallacies and became fond of her.
“Their relationship is tender … eventually,” Diamond said.
“Souvenir” played at the Bartell last season, and Diamond said those performances completely sold out. Word about the play got around in similar fashion to the way people found out about Jenkins herself.
“There were people that were coming back two or three times to see [Jenkins' 1944] show,” Diamond said.
Unlike the upcoming set of performances, last year’s “Souvenir” did not get a full run, due to the show sharing the stage with “Forever Plaid.”
The cast and direction are the same as last year’s production, allowing the cast to rehearse less and more efficiently in a period of a few weeks.
“What’s really nice is that … after the first week of rehearsals, [the actors] were back at the level they were last year, so we could really focus on fine-tuning things and getting to different emotional levels,” Diamond said.
Despite the description of Jenkins’ voice and a typical reaction to her singing, the play isn’t 100 percent comedy. Although a first reaction to Jenkins’ voice elicits laughter, and maybe a headache, the play doesn’t try to make a spectacle out of her.
“It would be so easy to simply make her a joke,” Diamond said. “And what the play does is make her a human being that you actually come to care for. So it is as poignant as it is wildly funny.”
And while Nahirniak and Frank will give emotionally piquing performances as their characters’ relationship evolves, Frank’s imitation of the performer dubbed The World’s Worst Opera Singer will be most unforgettable.
“It’s really funny; and in these trying times, I think we need a laugh,” Diamond said.
“Souvenir” runs May 6-21 in the Evjue Theatre at the Bartell, 113 E. Mifflin St. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the door or at http://madisontheatreguild.org/souvenir-2010.