“The world first heard my voice in 1912,” once said coloratura soprano Florence Foster Jenkins. “The year the Titanic went down.”
There may be a connection between the two events. It’s possible. Legions of Jenkins detractors (after all, she was known as “the worst singer in the world”) certainly would say so. But her fans back in the early- to mid-1940s, and there were almost as many as her foes – Cole Porter sent her flowers, Enrico Caruso telegraphed her – would argue that although her pitch may be “off,” her passion for opera was not.
In 2005, British playwright Peter Quilter wrote a play about the Wilkes-Barre, Pa.-born, would-be diva, “Glorious!” It was a modest hit in London’s West End, mainly because the frail, but sweet, tale came on the heels of Quilter’s smash stage hit, “End of the Rainbow,” a story of the last days of Judy Garland. “Glorious!,” though, based on real events and real people, can stand on its own.
And so it is back, in reprise at O’Connell & Co., with the troupe’s impresario, Mary Kate O’Connell again starring as Jenkins, the “Diva of Din,” a screeching, loud interpreter of arias – “I’m blessed with excessive volume,” she once gushed – seemingly ignorant of tone and rhythm and completely devoid of talent, some would say. But she had a certain honest, tacky style and chutzpah and her costumes were of her own design: feathers, boas, adornments, outrageous hats, the gloves, the shoes.
“Glorious!” begins with the introduction of Florence’s cronies, her enablers, eccentrics and sycophants all, and their collective search for a new accompanist since she can’t seem to keep one on the payroll. They settle on Cosme McMoon, a part-time waiter, the only one in the group who knows that Florence can’t sing a lick. He winces a lot but comes to adore the impossibly off-key Florence, who dreams of a Carnegie Hall date. Florence is so happy in her work. Clueless, but happy. She has no idea that she can’t sing. And she’s never a phony. Cosme loves that about her and despite some misgivings, he’s staying.
Unbelievably, Florence gets asked to perform at Carnegie, but there’s a caveat: she’s responsible for ticket sales. Yet, on the concert date, Oct. 25, 1944, the place is sold out. When Florence sang “The Laughing Song” from “Die Fledermaus” and her signature piece, “The Queen of the Night” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Caruso said that the great hall would “never hear anything like that again.” Fingers crossed, probably.
A month after the Carnegie concert, Florence died unexpectedly. It was a sad day for dreamers.
Call it what you will – bravura, tour de force – O’Connell is marvelous as Florence, gentle, innocent, trusting, so serious yet so ridiculous, a trait she shares with visiting director Joyce Stilson. Many exchanges with the other members of the Jenkins entourage – Roger VanDette as her companion; the invaluable Anne Gayley as ditzy friend Dorothy; Victoria Perez as mercurial maid Maria; and steady, bemused and flexible Darryl Hart, as Cosme – are almost vaudevillian. This is Stilson and O’Connell country.
Kate Olena has a fine few minutes protesting Florence’s public appearances.
Todd Warfield – along with director Stilson, on loan from Alleyway Theatre – has done great work with costumes, museum-piece look-alikes.
“Glorious!” is silly, cartoonish and limps along, but it is always fun and impish and the arias sung so discordantly by O’Connell are as uproarious as ever.