There are two ways to get noticed on the Internet. Option 1: Be very, very good at something. Option 2: Be very, very bad at something. William Hung’s 2004 American Idol audition garnered 6 million YouTube views thanks to Option 2. His off-key rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” is infamous for being unashamedly abysmal — a trainwreck from which we cannot look away.
Are we ridiculing a failure or cheering an underdog?
During World War II, flamboyant New York socialite and amateur singer Florence Foster Jenkins gained a cult of followers including composer Cole Porter, operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, and English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham.
But Jenkins was a terrible singer — a technically incompetent vocalist who seemed either oblivious or indifferent to her inability to acquire proper intonation, phrasing, rhythm, or even basic pitch. So, why was she so loved?
In November 2005, under the direction of Alan Strachan, British playwright Peter Quilter’s comedy Glorious! The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the Worst Singer in the World, now playing at Theatre in the Park inRaleigh, NC, sought to answer this question. The two-act play premiered in London’s West End and received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best New Comedy.
2005 was a big year for Ms. Jenkins and for Quilter. His play End of the Rainbow premiered at the Sydney Opera House just as Glorious hit the London stage. Stephen Temperley’s play about Jenkins, Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, hit Broadway the very same month.
Plays about fading divas were not new. We witnessed the tragic final days of Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, Édith Piaf in Pam Gems’ Piaf, and Judy Garland in Quilter’s own End of the Rainbow. Stephen Frears’ 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins — starring Meryl Streep — would capture the same warm, life-affirming tone of the two Jenkins plays.
On the page, Glorious is arguably a comedy — full of malapropisms, linguistic confusion, and Noël Coward-esque gay shade. But last Saturday night, Ira David Wood IV’s production at Theatre in the Park, while certainly comedic, did not keep tempo with the rhythms of Quilter’s dialogue.
Most of the production’s laughs (and there were many) come from definite “jokes” — almost all of which were landed by crowd-favorite Brian Westbrook in his superb turn as gay pianist Cosmé McMoon. Westbrook located Quilter’s built-in rests and ritardandos, keeping the show on tempo as much as possible with both comic timing and masterful piano playing — a lucky find indeed.
Accomplished vocalist and actress Alison Lawrence is the obvious choice for this role. She made Florence’s bad singing not only palatable but enjoyable, and I adored her fearlessness — the same thing I adore about Jenkins. She was bubbly and endearing, but many misfired line deliveries impeded the play’s comedic flow.
Ian Bowater charmed me as Jenkins’ exuberant lover St. Clair, but he seemed to transform into a different character during intermission. A tireless Judie Brown worked to keep the show’s energy afloat and pull meandering scenes back on track as the Lily Tomlin-esque Dorothy. She plays the most ridiculous material with utmost sincerity, but director Ira Wood has given her too many gags to successfully play at once.
Alexandra Finazzo made much of her brief time onstage as Jenkins’ Mexican cook Maria. I wish Quilter gave us more of her. Kathy Norris was a perfectly villainous Mrs. Verrinder-Gedge, earning many a hiss from the audience.
Vicki Olson’s costumes were period appropriate and did not distract. Video projections by Jeremy Diamond helped add historical context and masked lengthy costume changes, but the use of crowd sound effects was inconsistent.
Thomas Mauney’s lighting was effectively emotive, but did not always integrate well with his multifunctional set. Stage manager Christine Scardino impressively called cues for a show that veered noticeably off script.
Even with a mediocre script and arrhythmic direction, I wish the accomplished ensemble of actors had made the production really sing. But even with Brian Westbrook’s strong central performance, I felt the 2.5-hour show largely fell flat. Hopefully, the group can find its rhythm by next weekend.
SECOND OPINION: July 24th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Jeffrey Rossman: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8576; July 19th Raleigh, NC Spectrum News Central NC interview with director Ira David Wood IV and star Alison Lawrence, conducted by Tara Herrschaft: http://www.twcnews.com/nc/triangle-sandhills/in-depth-interview/2017/07/19/in-depth–glorious–comes-to-raleigh.html.
Theatre in the Park presents GLORIOUS! The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the Worst Singer in the World at 7:30 p.m. July 27-29, 3 p.m. July 30, 2 p.m. Aug. 3, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4 and 5, and 3 p.m. Aug. 6 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $24 ($18 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel), except $16 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or https://theatreinthepark.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S41000000S4rFEAS.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6058 or http://theatreinthepark.com/whatson/group-sales.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4th, performance.
Florence Foster Jenkins (nee Narcissa Florence Foster, 1868-1944): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Foster_Jenkins (Wikipedia).
Glorious! The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the Worst Singer in the World (2005 West End comedy): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/6303/glorious-the-true-story-of-florence-foster-jenkins-the-worst-singer-in-the-world (Samuel French, Inc.) and http://www.peterquilter.net/GLORIOUS-.html (Peter Quilter’s web page).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Peter Quilter (English playwright and screenwriter): http://www.peterquilter.net/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/peter-quilter-491219 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1502455/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/peter.quilter.39 (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/peterquilter (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Quilter (Wikipedia).
Ira David Wood IV (Raleigh, NC director and TIP’s assistant artistic director): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0939505/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/ira.d.wood (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/iradavidwoodiv (Twitter page).
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor, director, and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.