Debby Lennon digs into another offbeat character: Florence Foster Jenkins
Judith Newmark – St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 13, 2017
In the last couple of theater seasons, performer Debby Lennon’s career has taken a turn for the … peculiar.
And also for the very visible.
In July 2016, Lennon delivered a dazzling double performance in Max & Louie’s production of “Grey Gardens,” playing a grandiose grande dame in the first act and her emotionally disturbed, middle-age daughter in the second.
Singing in two different styles, moving in two different modes and limning two different women, Lennon’s performance brought her the 2017 St. Louis Theater Circle Award for outstanding actress in a musical.
< In June 2018, she followed up with her portrayal of a wife and mother struggling with bipolar disorder in a >Insight Theatre Company’s production of “Next to Normal.”
On Friday, Lennon adds a new character to her catalog of heroines with faulty connections to reality. She stars as Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy New York socialite who believed she had a beautiful operatic voice. She plays Jenkins — a real woman and the subject of the eponymous 2016 movie starring Meryl Streep — in Max & Louie’s production of “Souvenir.”
Because Jenkins had money, she was able to indulge her entirely imaginary talent. She performed in recitals attended by friends and ultimately booked herself into Carnegie Hall for a concert that sold out. The audience, however, thought the show was a comedy.
Written by Stephen Temperley, the play tells Jenkins’ story — variously hilarious and touching — from the viewpoint of her longtime accompanist, Cosme McMoon, played here by Paul Cereghino. Sydnie Grosberg Ronga directs, and Teresa Doggett designed the lavish costumes that Jenkins favored.
Lennon draws a distinction between Jenkins and the truly disturbed characters she played in “Grey Gardens” and “Next to Normal.” “Florence is steadfast in her belief in herself,” explains Lennon, who lives in Valley Park with her husband, Dan Ayres. “For her, it was never a delusion.”
“She never doubted her ability, and she lifted up everyone around her, including Cosme. I find her absolutely fascinating. And I love the chance to sing in such an offbeat way!”
She has sung in plenty of others. Growing up in Webster Groves, Lennon went to public school “until a priest suggested that I transfer to Nerinx Hall when he found out I had a voice. I could take lessons there.”
She continued her vocal studies at Fontbonne, then went to perform at Busch Gardens in Florida.
“Something about being onstage was exciting and terrifying, and I loved it,” she says. “And you get to work with wonderful, crazy people.”
In the years that followed, Lennon has kept on singing: a cappella with Pieces of 8, in opera and musicals at Opera Theatre St. Louis, Union Avenue Opera, Winter Opera, the Muny and Stages St. Louis, and in all kinds of concerts, from jazz to big band and pops to classical, all across the country.
A member of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus for decades, she made her SLSO solo debut in 2005, in William Balcom’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” at — could it be better? — Carnegie Hall. She’s also teaches voice at Webster University and St. Joseph’s Academy.
But Lennon still didn’t think of herself as an actress. “There are a lot of wonderful actresses here,” she says, and many of them can sing.
When the late Neal Richardson — who was musical director of “Grey Gardens” — suggested her for the demanding double role, “I thought it was a wonderful opportunity,” she says. “But I didn’t know anything about it.
“I prepared some things; I learned some songs. Except for Neal, I didn’t know anybody involved. Not much pressure! So I went to audition, and I thought, ‘I’m just going to do my thing.’”
In her previous roles, Lennon has tried to connect to the women she plays “just the way I connect in an art song,” using her voice to convey mood, circumstance and character. That’s how she connects to Jenkins, too.
“Florence,” she points out, “said that what matters most is the music you hear in your head.”