GLORIOUS! Hit Productions at the Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, 5-9 September 2017; and touring. Photography by CHRISfotographik: above and below - Diana McLean; below again - Felicity Soper, Diana McLean and Mitchell Roberts
American socialite, Florence Foster Jenkins, was both the worst and best known soprano in New York City in the early 1940s. She has remained a cult figure since her death in 1944 through recordings – made at her own instigation and cost – that defy reason and any idea of musicality. In recent years her incredible (incredible: impossible to believe – Oxford Dictionary) talent has reached new audiences through Glorious!, English playwright Peter Quilter’s 2005 comedy vehicle for Maureen Lipman, and 2016’s eponymous movie starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.
This Glorious! – “the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst singer in the world” – is the three-actor version of Quilter’s original for six. Missing now is Florence’s beau St Clair Brayfield, in favour of the long suffering accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Mitchell Roberts) while three female support roles have been sliced and diced and reworked for one busy actress, Felicity Soper.
Central still to the melodrama however, is Madame herself, the Dreadful Diva, the infamous “first lady of the sliding scale” Florence Foster Jenkins. And this production is either lucky or smart enough to have Diana McLean in the role. Last seen on stage as the hilariously cranky Jewish grandmother in 4000 Miles, McLean now brings not only that delicious comic timing, and a touching, nuanced performance to Florence but also the (learned) ability to peel paint with top notes that would make a corncrake weep.
This is the voice of which the great Enrico Caruso – a fan – once said he had never before heard its like. And this is true. There is something at once mesmerising and sublime about listening to a pair of vocal cords in search of a note, finding it, losing it again and continuing on a meandering path to approximation. And when the “singing” is carried out with the supreme and serene confidence of the Queen Mary at 25 knots, it is simply breathtaking.
The opening night audience at Parramatta's Riverside began – perhaps as Florence’s audiences once did – in polite and attentive silence, before guffaws, titters and plain old raucous laughter began breaking out across the auditorium. This is the frightful voice, after all, that sold out Carnegie Hall and left 2000 disappointed patrons in the street outside. And all the while, Cosmé valiantly chases her wayward notes and rhythms all over the scale(s) from the piano.
A good rapport between Roberts and McLean is vital to the success of the enterprise and it’s tangible: from stunned disbelief he becomes her affectionate and admiring protector and partner in crimes against music. She, in turn, gradually reveals the human being behind the facade of privilege, money and class. Denny Lawrence directs.
Soper’s job isn’t easy: the Mexican cook Maria is a cliched torrent of Spanish and bad blood, while Florence’s simpering friend Dorothy seems present for the purpose of friends-of-Dorothy jokes; while the final turn as the outraged music patron Mrs Verrinder-Gedge is more confected bile and little else. One wonders what has been lost in the reduction to three characters: there are windy and obvious holes in the narrative that are either sketchily filled or ignored altogether.
Nevertheless, in bejewelled and feathered costumes that accurately conjure up Florence in her heyday, on a simple set backed by a screen on which contemporary and apposite b&w photographs are projected (all design Sophie Woodward) the redoubtable and indomitable diva is brought to life in similar fashion by Diana McLean.
I must declare that she is my dear friend but I had no idea she had learned to sing so horribly and with such profound self belief. It’s frightening. That she finds the heart at the core of this ultimately sad character is not so surprising and it makes for a classic excellent night’s entertainment in the company of one of the more extraordinary icons of the American operatic canon. Recommended.