Nelson singer Rachel DeShon says she is getting much better at singing badly — but only after many hours of practice.
In an upcoming musical theatre production Souvenir: a Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, DeShon plays Jenkins, a wealthy socialite who suffered under the delusion that she was a great operatic soprano. In fact she was incapable of singing two consecutive notes in tune.
Nevertheless, she became a famous singer in the 1930s and 40s in New York, but not for the reasons she thought. Her fans considered her a novelty act and audiences laughed at her. Jenkins somehow took the laughter for cheers, and no one had the nerve to confront her with the truth.
The play, written by Stephen Temperley, is based on what little is known of the true story of Jenkins’ life and on audio recordings of her singing. It explores the complicated questions of how she came to harbour her delusions and why her audiences went along with it.
Director Pat Henman says these questions still puzzle her as she gets the two-actor play ready for production on Sept. 8 and 9 at the Capitol Theatre.
“That question comes up almost every single day, with us saying: ‘Why? How could she not know that she wasn’t singing well?’”
One almost convincing reason, Henman says, is that Jenkins was a socialite who contributed a lot to the arts, sat on the boards of many arts organizations, sipped sherry with them, and wrote cheques for their charities.
The play presents Jenkins’ life through the eyes of her accompanist, the pianist Cosmé McMoon, played by Nelson singer and actor Kozmo Sammartino. (The similarity in their names is strangely coincidental.)
McMoon originally became Jenkins’ accompanist because he was a struggling young musician who needed the work.
“He was looking to compose his own songs and do solo recitals because he was a gifted pianist,” says Sammartino.
When McMoon quickly discovers Jenkins can not sing, he doesn’t say anything but instead finds ways to protect her from her audience.
“There’s a lot of comedic bits where Cosmé McMoon is trying to persuade her to limit the amount of people she’ll perform for, only small concerts,” Sammartino says. “He thought, ‘Perhaps there’s a way I can keep her on course, so that she’s not totally a laughingstock.’”
Henman says her favourite part of the production is developing these two complex characters, figuring out who they really are, and finding ways to present the humour, the pathos and the mutual support in their relationship.
DeShon, meanwhile, is listening to recordings of Jenkins and figuring out the physical techniques required to sing so badly, and learning how, as an actor, to portray Jenkins convincingly.
“I’m used to being able to rely on singing well,” she says. “I can always sing well, and here I can’t rely on that. So my acting better be darn good.”
DeShon has lived in Nelson since 2017 and has since been active in the local theatre and music scene. Before moving to Canada she had a busy career in the U.S. as a singer who can easily cross over between opera, musical theatre and jazz. She has performed in concerts conducted by Marvin Hamlisch, and worked in a circus, Teatro ZinZanni, “singing opera while rollerskating or flying on a trapeze.”
Sammartino grew up in Nelson studying classical piano, singing in the choirs Corazón and Lalin, and performing lead roles in the Capitol Theatre’s summer youth theatre productions. He has just completed his third year as student of musical theatre at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ont.
Henman is a 43-year veteran of Canadian theatre and music industry as an actor, singer, and director. She moved to Nelson in 2000 and has been seen on stage in many roles, and as a director in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Mamma Mia!, Liberation Days, and Cabaret, among others. She is the author of Beyond the Legal Limit, published in 2021.
Showtimes for the Sept. 8 and 9 Capitol Theatre performances are 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the theatre box office, by phone at 250-352-6363, or online at capitoltheatre.ca.