It’s been seventy years now since Florence Foster Jenkins met her maker, but the voice that could shatter glass and bring an audience to its feet (for a quick escape?) lives on seven decades later as International City Theatre delights audiences with Peter Quilter’s Glorious!, aka “the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst singer in the world.”
“People may say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”
Thus spoke the would-be coloratura soprano, whose reputation as a “concert artist” lives on still despite (or perhaps because of) an almost complete inaccuracy of pitch, tone, and rhythm … of which she remained blissfully unaware throughout her seventy-eight years.
In fact, so devoted were her legion of followers that only a month before her 1944 demise, Florence Foster Jenkins achieved any diva’s dream—to perform before 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 caterwauling with the angels at the knowledge that her life ended up inspiring not one but two absolutely wonderful plays.
Stephen Temperley’s better-known Souvenir scored Judy Kaye a 2005 Tony Award nomination for her performance as Mrs. Jenkins just months after British actress Maureen Lipman conquered London’s West End in prolific playwright Quilter’s Glorious!.
Two musical biographies debuting almost simultaneously? What more could a star of Florence’s magnitude ask for!
L.A. audiences have been treated to several Souvenirs, and now at last Angelinos have the chance to sample Quilter’s marvelously madcap take on Florence.
While Temperley took the more sophisticated path of the two, with a two-person cast of characters and considerably more singing for Florence, Quilter has approached Glorious! as a screwball comedy, surrounding Madame Jenkins with numerous zany supporting characters—her longtime companion and manager St. Clair Bayfield, her dear friend Dorothy, her Mexican maid Maria, a snooty high society detractor Quilter has named Mrs. Verrinder-Gedge, and most importantly, her real-life accompanist Cosmé McMoon.
Though Mrs. Jenkins found herself the frequent object 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.
As for “confirmed bachelor” Cosmé, Florence remains as blissfully clueless to his obvious sexual orientation as she does to that of bouquet-bearing Cole Porter, who in Florence’s unwitting words “always comes along with a huge bunch of pansies.”
Director Of The Year Scenie winner Richard Israel once again waves his magic wand for ICT, coaxing a number of delicious performances in the grand screwball tradition, particularly from the divine Eileen Barnett in a role quite unlike any the Best Lead Actress Scenie winner has played in a career encompassing roles as diverse as Fiddler’s Golde and Call Me Madam’s Mrs. Sally Adams.
Outrageously untalented, effortlessly eccentric, and downright delusional Florence Foster Jenkins may have been, but Barnett resists every temptation to play her as a cartoon, and though we gasp at the wails and screeches that emerge from her throat amidst a few notes that just happen to hit the mark, Barnett makes it crystal-clear why an initially standoffish Cosmé ended up her devoted champion. In fact, Barnett’s Florence could teach us all a lesson in goodness and gumption.
Matthew Wrather provides marvelous support as Cosmé, imbuing Florence’s real-life accompanist with humor and heart, in addition to tickling the grand piano ivories with panache.
Leland Crooke makes for a charmingly urbane St. Claire and Janellen Steininger does delightful work as Florence’s loyal sidekick Dorothy.
Carol Abney gets to play both Florence’s “no hablo inglés” maid Maria and naysaying society matron Mrs. Verrinder-Gedge, and though a lighter touch might serve the Mexican maid and the play’s frothy tone a bit better (as is, Maria outstays her welcome early on), Abney aces the latter’s disapproval to snooty perfection.
Glorious! gives us 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 of them featuring an ICT Resident Costume Designer Kim DeShazo confection that must be seen to be believed, in addition to the many marvelous period outfits DeShazo has created for supporting characters.
Resident Scenic Designer JR Bruce’s elegant flower-strewn set does nifty service as Glorious!’s multiple locales with black-and-white photo projections aiding in setting both era and scene.
Recordings of Florence’s arias as they should have been sung are just one aspect of Resident Sound Designer Dave Mickey’s topnotch work, with additional kudos due Jeremy Pivnick’s vivid lighting design and Resident Property Designers Patty, Gordon, and Christopher Briles’ multiple props. Resident Hair And Wig Designer Anthony Gagliardi’s styles are mostly spot-on, though Abney’s two wigs are similar enough (particularly in color) as to create possible confusion.
Questionable too is director Israel’s decision to have a character pop up from the ground like Lazarus from a life-threatening heart attack, the better to turn stage hand in an ensuing scene change from ballroom to funerary gardens.
Laura Rin is production stage manager and Anne L. Hitt assistant stage manager. Michael Donovan, CSA is Resident Casting Director and Richie Ferris casting assistant. caryn desai is Artistic Director/Producer.
More glass-shattering than ear-pleasing Florence Foster Jenkins’ voice may have been, but glorious indeed is the legacy of love and laughter that lives on in Peter Quilter’s terrific take on her life and legend.
Having just won a 2013-2014 Theatre Company Of The Year Scenie for five fabulous productions in a row, International City Theatre scores once again—and quite gloriously so—with Glorious!
International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.
October 10, 2014
Photos: Suzanne Mapes