By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Ear-bruising vocals and eye-stinging costumes are no strangers to Theatre Three. But with Glorious! this impecunious 45-year-old theater in the Quadrangle near downtown finally grabs hold of a show that demands those things. Talk about a perfect fit.
In song and story, Glorious! tells of the silly, sad and very real life of "Madame" Florence Foster Jenkins, a dumpy Manhattan heiress in her 70s who imagined herself a diva of great renown. She dressed like a peacock and sang like one, too, screeching and squawking arias with not a pinfeather's worth of self-awareness. She was a freak show whose act always ended on a fractured high note.
Every now and then the public and the press bestow stardom on conspicuously bad singers—Mrs. Miller, Tiny Tim, William Hung and Ashlee Simpson come to mind—so Jenkins was elevated to celebrity status in the 1930s and '40s, making recordings and performing sold-out thrice-yearly "recitals." The phenomenon that was Jenkins reached its peak in 1944, when the "the soprano of the sliding scale," as she was known, booked herself into Carnegie Hall for what would become her last and greatest vanity showcase.
The event was a sellout, with 2,000 turned away at the box office. Jenkins' fans, who included Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Tallulah Bankhead, packed the hall, hooting and hollering at her white-winged "Angel of Inspiration" costume and her butchering of various lieder. Their raucous laughter was interpreted through the filter of Jenkins' optimistic dottiness as appreciation and love. A month and a day after her Carnegie Hall triumph, Jenkins died. Some said she was heartbroken at the harsh reviews of that night, one critic writing that she sang like "a cuckoo in its cups."
Sixty years passed and Florence Foster Jenkins was all but forgotten, a mere feathery footnote in showbiz history, when suddenly the legend of the lousy coloratura was rediscovered and retold in three new shows. The first, Viva La Diva, a play about Jenkins by Chris Ballance, premiered in 2001 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Next came Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, which opened on Broadway in November 2005 and starred Judy Kaye. Glorious!, by Royal Court Theatre's Peter Quilter, was first performed in England that same year.
Why the resurgence of interest in one of America's least talented stars? Maybe it was the appearance of links on Amazon to some of Jenkins' greatest bad performances. CDs of her recordings, including Murder on the High C's and The Glory (????) of the Human Voice, continue to sell at bargain prices. Or maybe it has something to do with the cultural imprint of American Idol, a TV show that leads legions of young Florence Foster Jenkinses to believe for a moment they actually are divas before destroying their dreams with the bitter truth.
No one ever told "Madame" the truth about her singing. When music purists tried, she shunned them as "enemies" and crossed them off the invitation list to her recitals. (No one could buy a ticket without being personally interviewed by Jenkins over sherry in her hotel suite, a protocol equal parts charming and bizarre.)
In Theatre Three's Glorious!, Jenkins is played by comically adroit but too-young-for-70 Connie Coit, who gets to sing, intentionally awfully, three big solos. Coit is a stitch every time she strangles a note. Working herself up for "Adele's Laughing Song," she shrieks out the melody like a cat caught in a lawn mower. That's a killer.
Overall, however, the production is off-key beyond Jenkins' singing. Quilter's artless script is full of obvious set-ups for weak jokes such as this: "Do you like Rimsky-Korsakov?" "I never eat foreign food."
Serving as the living voiceover in the play is Jenkins' accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Terry Dobson), who stands by the grand piano to fill in dry details of Jenkins' biography, then drops to the bench to bang out another tune. Written to be swishy and cynical, Dobson's McMoon gets only halfway there. He's a fine piano player, but as an actor, Dobson is way too country to be a believable big-city musician—too much Gomer Pyle in the delivery, not enough John Waters.
Filling out the small cast of characters are Jenkins' debonair companion and manager St. Clair (R Bruce Elliott), neighbor and confidante Dorothy (Sally Cole) and maid Maria (Cecilia Flores), who speaks only Spanish and only in angry bursts. Elliott is a suave older gent with sharp timing on Quilter's groaner punch lines. Flores is funny stomping around like a sumo wrestler in an apron. Cole, one of director Jac Alder's favorite character actresses, does what she usually does in shows at Theatre Three—stutter-step through her lines like someone who's either had or badly needs a prefrontal lobotomy.
The set, also by Alder, is a hodgepodge of ideas (not to mention chairs and tables) from every other show Theatre Three did last year. Same goes for the costumes by Michael Robinson, who does little more for his leading lady than stick some molting boas onto swaths of cheap black crepe and call it a day.
Glorious!—bad script, bad singing, bad couture and all—does, by its second act, begin to work some mysterious alchemy on the audience. The outrageous vivacity of Coit's wide-eyed performance certainly helps sell Jenkins as a guileless, tone-deaf sweetie-pie who loved her friends and her music. The actress also clicks into the grittiness that made Jenkins persist in performing publicly. "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing," she says defiantly.