Friday, February 12, 2010

Glorious!


The name Florence Foster Jenkins still has the ability to ignite a discussion more than 65 years after her death. Was she serious? Did she really think she could sing? Or was she just an elaborate joke?

Born in Pennsylvania in 1868, Florence took music lessons as a child, but apparently did not seem worthy enough for her father to pay for them further. Thus she eloped with a Doctor to Philadelphia and eventually on to New York, worming her way in to society by using her family money to start and fund ladies' music societies plus give the occasional, also self funded and promoted, recital.

From her recorded legacy, it is obvious she had little musical ability, especially in the basics of pitch and diction. Maybe it was an early manifestation of "camp", but for some reason she became quite popular. If she heard laughter or a bad review, she tossed it off as professional jealousy from less talented individuals. Florence died in 1944, one month after a self funded but highly successful sold out Carnegie Hall recital.

English playwright Peter Quilter has captured some scenes from Foster's last years in New York leading up to the Carnegie Hall recital in his successful comedy "Glorious!" now playing at KC's best theatre venue, the American Heartland Theatre.

Although blessed with a strong cast, the play rambles with some silly, almost slapstick side episodes which frankly get in the way of a good story. The recurring entrance and funeral of Florence's friend Dorothy's dead poodle is simply distracting and inane. Marilyn Lynch as Dorothy, who shares Florence's delusion that she is great, has some great lines and scenes, but this is not one of them. The nasty Mexican maid "Maria" is another side distraction that provides some comedy, but certainly adds nothing to the overall story. Maria's gutter slang Spanish is frequently lost to those who do not understand the language, such as when she yells "screw you" at Florence in a distinctively South American way, or calls Florence's pianist a "mariposa", Mexican slang for a "fag".

The main characters carry the show. Debra Bluford, as Florence, has a great presence, a strong voice (?) and the flexibility to camp it up just enough to make us think Florence is just a joke, but just as passionately can portray Florence as a serious character. Jonas Cohen is remarkable as Florence's last accompanist Cosme McMoon (the story and mystery of the real Cosme McMoon is worthy of a story itself). Cosme is obviously talented, closeted gay (providing many a joke, some also lost on the audience such as when he is asked if he is a "friend of Dorothy too", referring to the character of Dorothy but also invoking the old code phrase for "are you gay" common in the 40's-60's) and needing money and an outlet for his art. Florence pays well so he relents, falling in to her world and ultimately coming to love and admire Florence for her.... talent, as it were. Brilliant actor Bruce Roach (who did the slimiest, most evil Iago in "Othello" a few seasons ago), portrayed Florence's long time "friend" StClair Bayfield, but his sardonic comments frankly just sounded absurd, doing little to establish his role.

But the singing (?) was of a type rarely heard in theatre; it must be difficult to really sing that bad. Bluford looked positively absurd in the costumes, as well she should.. so did Florence. Cosme's final reflections changed the whole mood of the show, causing us to leave wondering a-new; was Florence Foster Jenkins a joke or a woman with balls doing things her way and living her dream as few of us ever do.

Cosme was not laughing.



1 comment:

Joe Conda said...

May I recommend my documentary on the subject - "Florence Foster Jenkins: A World Of Her Own". It tells the complete, factual and uncensored life story of Jenkins, correcting many myths and explains the phenomenon.

It is available from VAI (www.vaimusic.com)

Donald Collup