"I was blessed with the gift of excessive volume," declares soprano wannabe Florence Foster Jenkins. The portly New York City classical music warbler was also cursed with the gift of, shall we say, unintentional microtonality, as well as a breezy indifference to rhythm, timbre, pitch and other nuances of singing. Yet she somehow managed to maintain a thirty year recital career performing—or desecrating—Mozart, Strauss, and other classical composers, including selling out Carnegie Hall a month before her death in 1944. Jenkins' primary asset was, in fact, financial: thanks to money inherited from her wealthy father, the society matron headed a dozen influential women's clubs, could finance her own concerts, and choose the audience, most of whom either wanted to get in her good graces — or cackle at the camp spectacle of the triumph of money over taste, capitalism over art.
, one of two recent plays recounting Jenkins' story, could have played this empress's-new-clothes fable as a straight farce, merely indulging in the impulse to lambaste Jenkins' obvious egotistical self delusion, and the venality of her accompanist /co-conspirator, a pianist who allegedly and outrageously called himself Cosme McMoon, who knew just how horrible Jenkins sounded yet stayed with her because she paid him far more than he could make scrounging piano bars. Instead, it tries, and sometimes succeeds, in making theirs a tragicomic story: a wannabe whose genuine love of great music and desperate need for affection (indifferent father, failed early marriage) blind, or rather deafen, her to the implacable fact that she can't sing it. And a Sancho Panza who, probably to his own surprise, recognizes this and rises to protect her from anyone who'd puncture her beautiful but insubstantial bubble.
Director Donald Horn and his excellent cast adopt this sympathetic approach. Horn resists several platinum opportunities for slapstick guffaws, especially Jenkins' entrances in her ludicrous costumes. And singer / actor Barbara Irvin, veteran of opera and musical theater who teaches voice at Reed College, plays Jenkins not with an “I-know-it's-all-a joke” smirk (which would have been historically inaccurate and couldn't have sustained a whole show), but rather as an oblivious idealist who doesn't know the joke's on her — which paradoxically makes her even funnier (since the audience does) and more poignant. Rather than caricaturing Jenkins as only an object of derision, Irvin makes us understand why McMoon and others would try to protect her from reality. And she's clearly such a good singer that she just can't let herself sing as excruciatingly as the real Jenkins did, judging by the recordings still available.
Unfortunately, the script fails to do similar justice to McMoon, the more interesting character in this charade, inasmuch as Jenkins never appeared to change or waver in her blissful, misguided self assurance. He's pretty much an ironic set-up vehicle for laughs, unleashing, from behind a pained, fake smile, a series of arch double entendres that Jenkins takes at face value but that the audience realizes is a lampoon. The pose eventually grows tiresome. Michael Teufel tries nobly to deepen the character beyond an extended wink and snark—and almost succeeds in the crucial, climactic scene where he, and we, discover his genuine love for her—but we never really understand McMoon's motivation.
The script pacing falters when it uses Jenkins' inability to comprehend either McMoon's barely closeted gayness or her Latina maid's Spanish as over obvious metaphors for her general cluelessness, but the actors' chemistry keeps us rooting for them till the end.
In this ironic era of American Idol
and Grey Gardens
, or even the last generation's revival of so-bad-it's-good smirkfests like Plan 9 from Outer Space
, it's much easier to understand why audiences (including Cole Porter and Irving Berlin) would turn out in droves to laugh at talentless self deception. But Glorious!
also reminds us that dreaming a dream
is a necessary if, alas, not sufficient condition for the kind of triumph we honestly applaud. For better or (probably) worse, Jenkins might have paved the way. “Sometimes we have to live in the real world,” a character scolds her. She replies: “Why?”
Glorious is presented by Triangle Productions! at The CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St., 239-5919. 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays. Closes April 25. $18-$23.