Carlisle Ellis and Michael Martinez in "Souvenir"
photo by Ryan Fagan
Blessed with far more money than talent, Florence Foster Jenkins financed her own desire to sing the classical soprano repertoire despite her inability to do so. She was also blessed with timing, in the sense that her career took place between the two world wars.
As for musical timing, well, she wasn't any better at that than she was at singing on pitch and sustaining a single note for more than a couple of seconds. Some recordings that showcase her lack of talent are posted on YouTube, should you be tempted to think that "maybe Florence Foster Jenkins wasn't all that bad."
We also see that Tucson's own actress Carlisle Ellis sounds remarkably like those recordings while performing in the Live Theatre Workshop production of "Souvenir" written by Stephen Temperley and directed by Stephen Frankenfield.
The only other cast member is pianist/actor Michael Martinez as Jenkins' accompanist Cosme McMoon. There couldn't be a better name for this musical enabler of Jenkins' need to believe she is a great soprano.
Temperley centers his play backstage just before Jenkins is to give her first and only performance at Carnegie Hall in the autumn of 1944. McMoon in his tuxedo sits at a piano reminiscing over the controversial career of his patron.
Through Martinez' subtly shaded performance we easily believe he felt sincerely sorry for Jenkins, even as he rode her unusual popularity to greater heights than he could have expected on his own.
Historically, Jenkins became quite popular for all the wrong reasons. She had no talent for singing, but threw herself into every performance with such unbridled brio that audiences didn't know what to think.
This being a time when well-educated New Yorkers still valued manners and civil attitudes in public, they did not want to laugh out loud. They felt embarrassed for her, so they applauded outwardly while stifling their laughter.
Jenkins felt vindication in their applause, and interpreted their muffled laughs as the sounds of their pleasure.
It is Ellis' responsibility to convey all this misunderstanding through her conversation and body language, also while implying such a clueless attitude that she becomes funny – but not in a nice way.
Talk about a tough assignment.
Frankenfield walks an equally tight rope developing these two characters, avoiding obtuse awareness on one side and artless arrogance on the other.
The artistic achievements of all three are so strong, it is only after walking out of the theater that one begins to think about people around Tucson right now who have similar blind spots about their own talents.
"Souvenir" continues through Nov. 16 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $18, with discounts. For details and reservations, 520-327-4242, www.livetheatreworkshop.org