"This . . . is London": Florence Foster Jenkins, Again

Well, it doesn’t always take “practice, practice, practice” to get to Carnegie Hall. Sometimes, delusions of grandeur—and a few thousand gawkers in search of the proverbial train wreck—will do. If you are among those who still marvel at the American public’s decision to include Kevin Covais among this year’s American Idol finalists, consider the career of a tone-deaf diva who brought the William Hung-factor to classical music: Florence Foster Jenkins, a coloratura-blind soprano so astonishingly awful that audiences are still pricking up their ears in disbelief some sixty years after her silencing. Call it “Schadenfreude schöner Götterfunken.”

When last I was in New York City, I went to see Souvenir, a “fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins” starring Judy Kaye (and reviewed it here). A few weeks later, I was surprised to discover that another not-so-musical portrait of the miss-most-notes notable was on display in London, where it can be taken in at the Duchess Theatre until the end of April. Of course, I had to see and hear for myself how La-la-la Jenkins was being treated overseas, so far from the famed hall she brought down in the fall of 1944, within weeks of her exit at age 76.

As conceived by Peter Quilter, patched-together from what little he could find about the performer in print, Glorious is the sort of guilty theatrical pleasure few people permit themselves these days, given the exorbitant ticket prices that make the legitimate stage a recycle bin for acknowledged classics and crowd-pleasing musicals. Glorious doesn’t quite live up to its title. It is unambitious, trivial, and decidedly silly. Maureen Lipman, whom I had previously seen opposite Sir Ian McKellen in a rather chintzy reproduction of the pantomime Aladdin, delivers the broad jokes and broader slapstick with pitch-perfection. Only too rarely, when addressing us as Jenkins’s audience, does she become as captivating or “glorious” as the original herself must have been to 1940s concert-goers.

Unlike Souvenir‘s Judy Kaye, Lipman does not go far beyond shtick, not being required or encouraged to do so by Quilter’s cartoonish script, which at times seems little more than an assortment of rather ho-hum puns, few of which you would get away with even in intoxicated company.

Unlike Ms. Kaye—who was just and judiciously supported by a pianist-narrator based on Jenkins’s own accompanist, Cosme McMoon—Lipman is being surrounded by a host of sitcom characters: an irascible Hispanic maid, a womanising admirer, a ditzy confidante, and a society lady appalled at her caterwauling. The situations derived from these fictional foes and associates are far less inspired than the close-up of Jenkins at her self-delusional best.

And, unlike Ms. Kaye, Lipman is unable to end on the moving high note both Quilter and Stephen Temperley (the writer of Souvenir) chose for their flourish. Both playwrights attempt to bring home Ms. Jenkins’s blissful ignorance of her tone-deafness by letting us hear the dulcet tones the performers assumes to be producing. Musical star Judy Kaye gets an opportunity to sing “Ave Maria,” while Lipman merely lip-synchs to a recording. The audiences of Souvenir are offered a glimpse, at least, of the diva’s doubts and fears, while those seeing Glorious will encounter a consummate mis-performer sheltered by a stupefying lack of self-awareness.

“[I]t was certainly rather wonderful living in the head of this unique woman,” Quilter remarks in his notes on the play. Unfortunately, we get to enter neither his mind nor hers. Instead, we are being treated to two hours of Will and Disgrace.

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