Dallas — Before there was William Hung, the, uh, singer? whose audition for American Idol in 2004 catapulted him to fame because his voice was so terrible, there was Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite and heiress, who is considered the worst singer to ever perform at a sold-out Carnegie Hall. You may have heard of Jenkins from the 2016 biopic starring Meryl Streep that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Like many of Peter Quilter’s scripts that center on some of the quirkiest tales from the entertainment world, Glorious! tells the theatrical version of the story of the Diva of Din and her inner circle of devout friends. One Thirty Productions continues its run of Quilter’s 2005 play at the Bath House Cultural Center. Gene Raye Price directs the crowd-pleasing comedy.
The play opens on a formal parlor with multiple crystal chandeliers. It’s Jenkins’ apartment at Hotel Seymore in New York. The year is 1944. Rodney Dobbs’ set design perfectly captures the opulent environment that was indicative of Jenkins’ self-financed rise to stardom. The mishmash of elegant rug and upholstery fabrics seem to carry over from the characters’ own abundance of eccentricity. The set easily transitions to the Melotone recording studio, the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton, and the stage at Carnegie Hall. A practical but effective slideshow runs between some of the scenes and helps to set the historical and geographical contexts.
In several scenes, Michael Robinson’s costume design steals the show. Jenkins was known to create her own elaborate costumes often involving wings, tinsel, and flowers for her self-produced recitals and tableaux vivants. Robinson takes this as an invitation to pull out all stops.
It’s difficult to say what deserves top billing in this gratifying production: Jenkins’ larger-than-life personality or her indomitable spirit. And then there’s that voice, which never took a shortcut when it came to singing in key. It’s become a cliché to say that it takes true talent to make something intentionally bad, but that doesn’t make the sentiment any less true. In this case, the talent behind Jenkins is Colleen Mallette, who has a well-deserved and storied singing career all her own.
In Mallette’s capable hands, Jenkins endears the audience even as it hoots and giggles at her singing. She gives us something to believe in despite all odds, even through some of Quilter’s groan-worthy lines. To sum up her work ethic in regard to her recording an album of songs in one take, for example, she explains, “If you can’t do it right the first time, then why tire yourself out doing it again?”
The musical highlight is her transformation of “Adele’s Laughing Song” beyond any recognition. Mallette takes the aria from Johann Strauss’ operetta Die Fledermaus and turns it into something like a barking fit. But she does this with such seriousness and gravitas, that it’s hard not to break out into applause and cheers in spite of yourself.
Classically trained pianist Hans Grim skillfully portrays Cosme McMoone, Jenkins’ accompanist. Cosme seems to be the only person in Jenkins’ inner circle who is aware of her lack of talent, yet he still manages to encourage her with a shot in the arm of vague bromides like “there’s no need to worry about any one single note.” The talented John S. Davies plays Jenkins’ flirtatious live-in male companion St. Clair, who is always available to trash talk about fellow celebrities like Marlon Brando and Cole Porter.
Marty Van Kleeck is loveably hysterical as Jenkins’ eccentric neighbor Dorothy. Gigi Cervantes, who often wows local audiences in serious roles with Teatro Dallas and Undermain Theatre, makes her debut with One Thirty Productions as the comically surly Mexican maid Maria. She is perfect in this role, and is equally adept playing Mrs. Verrinder-Gedge, a music lover and Jenkins' harshest critic.
Rounding out the proficient technical team are Marco Salinas and Michael Robinson, who created the sound and light designs, respectively. Van Kleeck does double duty as prop designer.
With no apparent technical glitches and only the slightest of pacing issues, Glorious! offers the matinee crowd an expert production that both tickles and inspires. The all-out funny script is filled with bawdy double entendres and innuendos, and the actors are a joy to watch. And as for the singing, well, it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear anything like it again!