Maria (Anne Hinton, center) isn't very happy with the budding relationship between Florence Foster Jenkins (Susan Denaker) and Cosme McMoon (David McBean).
If you've been within earshot of a working slaughterhouse, you're familiar with opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins' work. Jenkins could've made a killing in voice-overs for specials on animal cruelty—her wholesale lack of pitch, tone, breath control, time signature and interpretation recalled the best in the victims' cries of distress. She was so ungodly awful that she sold out New York's 3,000-seat Carnegie Hall in 1944. Some 2,000 would-be patrons were turned away for lack of tickets. Scalpers asked 10 times the price of admission. And they got it.
Jenkins endeared herself to her followers because of sheer ineptitude—and Glorious, North Coast Repertory Theatre's current entry, is an account of the soprano's life and fan base, her accompanist's undying affection and their road to fame. Writer Peter Quilter has a handle on the character study, but he stumbles amid a top-heavy plot. In any event, pieces about underdogs are fun almost by default. The performers' shticky affectations and some spot-on direction by Rosina Reynolds and Christopher M. Williams make this one no exception.
This is as much Cosme McMoon's story as Jenkins'—his tall order as Jenkins' pianist is even taller amid the singer's bearing and her plastic, unsettling smile. And that voice! McMoon can't believe his ears at first; during their initial meeting, when Jenkins asks him where she should stand for the best effect, he mutters, “Canada.” So it goes for days and weeks, with Jenkins inexpertly regaling McMoon on such unconnected topics as her surly Spanish maid, the Guatemalan diet and the effects of booze on men.
But whatever Jenkins lacks in talent is no match for her colossal persistence—and, eventually, McMoon and several ladies-only clubs come around. “People may say that I cannot sing,” she declares at her annual rehearsal at the Ritz-Carlton, “but no one can say that I didn't sing.” Firmly convinced of her greatness, she'd play Carnegie shortly thereafter, grossing about $6,000 (a pile of money in those days)—and a sizable chunk of New York lay at her feet.
True singers know how hard it is to deliberately sing off-key. That's what makes this role tougher than it looks—and as Jenkins, Susan Denaker pulls most everything off (right down to Jenkins' speaking voice, which has this annoying little catch in the throat). Annie Hinton is a delight as maid Maria and Mrs. Verrinder-Gedge, a frumpy arts patron whose disgust toward Jenkins pales against the adoration. David McBean's McMoon transitions well from annoyance to devotion, although Quilter underwrites his change of heart. So, too, does the author give the Carnegie gig far too much stage time; the piece isn't about Jenkins' defining performance so much as her place in the public mind. Renetta Lloyd's costumes are as outrageous as Jenkins' voice.
YouTube has a few entries on Jenkins, who died at 76 in 1944. These shorts might lead you to the play, and that's a good thing. There's a lot of funny history here on a unique figure, whose dogged persistence is matched only by the improbability of her rise to notoriety. This review is based on the opening-night performance of Jan. 16. Glorious runs through Feb. 7 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. $30-$47. www.northcoastrep.org. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.