“People may say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”
–Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944)

In her lifetime, would-be coloratura soprano Florence Foster Jenkins acquired quite a reputation as a “concert artist,” despite (or perhaps because of) an almost complete inaccuracy of pitch, tone, and rhythm. She amassed a devoted legion of followers, and only a month before her death at the age of 78, achieved any diva’s dream—to perform to a sell-out crowd at none other than Carnegie Hall.  Quite an achievement from a woman scarcely able to sustain a note!

In the Operatic Diva Heaven where she must surely now reside, Florence must be singing with the angels at the knowledge that her life has inspired not one but two absolutely wonderful comedies with “music.”  Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir opened on Broadway in November of 2005 and scored Judy Kaye a Tony Award nomination for her performance as Mrs. Jenkins. In a remarkable coincidence, British actress Maureen Lipman had opened on London’s West End just two months prior in prolific playwright Peter Quilter’s Glorious! (billed as “the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst singer in the world”).  Two musical biographies debuting almost simultaneously—what more could a star of Florence’s reputation ask for?

Souvenir has already played the L.A. area twice, with a third production opening next month, but until now, no one in Southern California has had the chance to sample Quilter’s take on Florence.

That omission can now be remedied by a simple drive down south to Solana Beach to catch the splendid San Diego Premiere of Glorious! at North Coast Repertory, with Susan Denaker adding her own delicious take on Florence Foster Jenkins to her those of her illustrious predecessors.

Both Temperley’s and Quilter’s plays deserve to be seen. Temperley takes a more sophisticated path, with a two-person cast of characters and considerably more singing for Florence.  Quilter approaches Glorious! as a screwball comedy, surrounding Madame J. with numerous zany supporting characters—her Mexican maid, her dear friend Dorothy, a snooty high society detractor, and in its original London production, Florence’s longtime companion and manager St. Clair Bayfield.  Though Mrs. Jenkins was the object of a good deal of whispered ridicule, both playwrights treat her with affection and respect, and in a quite amazing coincidence, both plays end on a similar magical note.

Glorious! is jam packed with one-liners, most of which hit their hilarious mark, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of Florence’s lines might be ones actually uttered by the songstress. Take Madame’s opinion on recording 78s for Melotone: “I feel that if you don’t get it right the first time, you won’t do it any better the second—so why tire yourself?”  Sounds just like something Florence Foster Jenkins would have said.

Like Souvenir, Glorious! pairs Florence with her devoted accompanist, “confirmed bachelor” Cosmé McMoon, of whose obvious sexual orientation Florence remains blissfully unaware, as she does of her fan Cole Porter’s. “Always comes along with a huge bunch of pansies,” she reveals to Cosmé, pointing to a vase of said posies.

Rosina Reynolds and Christopher M. Williams have directed North Coast Rep’s production of Glorious in the grand screwball tradition. Though performances are drawn with grand strokes (occasionally perhaps a tad too grand), there remains a core of truth, particularly in the work of the production’s terrific star.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a dream role for an actress/singer if there ever was one, and Denaker’s performance is a delight from start to finish. Disappearing under Florence’s matronly wig and some extra padding, Denaker wisely resists the temptation to play Mrs. Jenkins any more outrageous than the lady doubtless was in real life.  We gasp at the wails and screeches that emerge from Florence’s throat (amidst a few notes that just happen to hit the mark), and we make no attempt to stifle our laughter (as Florence’s real audiences were forced to do). Still, Denaker makes us understand why audiences adored Florence, and why an initially standoffish Cosmé ended up her devoted champion.

San Diego favorite David McBean is a flamboyant gem as Cosmé, and accompanies Denaker on the grand piano with accuracy and flair.  A funny Annie Hinton creates three distinct characters—Florence’s ever-complaining maid Maria (who speaks not a word of English), her dithery friend Dorothy, and Mrs. Johnson, the society matron who considers Florence to be “an absolute disgrace,” and shows up before one of her concerts to tell her so to her face.

The original London production had all three of Hinton’s roles played by different actresses, and it makes perfect financial and artistic sense to assign them all to one performer. I’m not sure I agree with the decision to excise a major character (St. Clair) from Quilter’s script and divvy his lines up between Florence and Cosmé. On the plus side, this does mean more stage time for Benaker and McBean and more great lines for them each.

Glorious! features four of Florence Foster Jenkins’ most famous arias—“The Musical Snuffbox” by Lyadov, “Adele’s Laughing Song” by Straus, “Clavelitos” by J. Valverde, and “The Queen Of The Night” by Mozart. Each features Florence in a Renetta Lloyd costume which must be seen to be believed, particularly the angel (with moveable wings) featured on the album cover of Madame Jenkins’ posthumously released album “The Glory (????) of the Human Voice.” Lloyd also deserves top marks for the outfits she designed for Cosmé (some gorgeous tuxes) and Hinton’s three characters.

Marty Burnett’s excellent revolving scenic design transforms itself from Florence’s apartment to a recording studio to the Ballroom of the Ritz Carlton Hotel to the stage at Carnegie Hall. Set changes are accompanied by projected black-and-white photos which situate us smack dab in the middle of the 1940s and by recordings of Florence’s arias as they should have been sung (courtesy of Chris Luessmann’s fine sound design). Matt Novotny’s lighting is topnotch, as are the props and set dressing supervised by Annie Bornhurst.

For a performer as over-the-top as Florence Foster Jenkins, clearly one musical biography was not enough.  Peter Quilter’s Glorious! makes for a marvelous companion piece to Souvenir, one well worth a drive south to Solana Beach. Mrs. Jenkins would certainly approve.

North Coast Repertory, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Ste. D, Solana Beach.

–Steven Stanley
January 17, 2010
                                                                       Photos: Aaron Rumley

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