A great opportunity to join the Jenkins cult
By Philip Pearce
Soprano Florence Foster Jenkins was a cult sensation of the New York social scene in the 1940s – “cult” being that euphemism we tend to apply to any performer or work which attracts a persistent, fanatical fan base in spite of, maybe even because of, a lack of artistic merit.
With Jenkins, known in her lifetime as “the diva of din,” the lack was total. Yet she made musical history of a sort with big vinyl recording sales and a multitude of devoted fans that included Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen. The politer of concert goers stifled their laughter, while the less controlled guffawed openly at the quavery coloratura loops, gasping flourishes and piercing shrieks of Jenkins’s attacks on Mozart and Strauss plus a repertoire of home-made songs with titles like ”Like a Bird.” Her partner in performance was a pianist with the startling name of Cosme McMoon,. Their forays into twentieth century culture are the subject of Peter Quilter’s Glorious! now enjoying a brisk, funny production at Magic Circle Theatre in Carmel Valley Village.
Deliberately singing badly has been a challenge to stars of this and three earlier plays about Jenkins. Lyn Whiting meets the challenge head on, is vocally hilarious and gives full sway to the campy, over-the-top stuff, without losing the brief moments of underlying pathos in this extraordinary, puzzling character. It’s an assured and impressive piece of acting that might, with a less able supporting cast, have blown everyone else into the shadows. Not so here. Director Laura Cote and five other excellent local actors keep the focus on whoever is there to offer a new slant on the incredible central figure. Jon-Mark Hurley is a wry, eye-rolling McMoon and plays the accompanying piano trills and glissandos with skill. Richard Boynton is convincing and funny as Florence’s bibulous British actor boyfriend, and Virginia Bell serves play and main character admirably as a neighbor and arch supporter named Dorothy. For a time, there’s nobody around to challenge Florence’s claims to vocal brilliance, but then Faith Collins-Beety explodes out of the audience and into the action as a socialite so angry at all the cultural hype and pretension that she even out-hollers the redoubtable Whiting, until knocked for a loop by the arrival of an authentic offer for Jenkins to play Carnegie Hall. And, please, finally, can we have a special extra bow to the wonderful Sherry Kefalas who does amazing things with the role of Madame Jenkins’s glowering Mexican maid.
Quilter’s script makes the story accessible, sticking to its goofy surface, never probing the underlying question of who ultimately being tricked. The received wisdom here and elsewhere is that Jenkins remained convinced to the end (she died a few months after her sold-out Carnegie Hall debut) that she had a glorious voice. A less popular but more interesting play might have questioned whether she and Cosme contrived to offer a public hungry for novelty and merriment unsuspected proof that anything worth doing is worth doing badly.
Performances continue weekends through June 23.