New York heiress Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) believed she could sing. She compared herself to the opera greats of her time and dismissed the laughter of crowds who gathered to hear her as “professional jealousy.”
But Jenkins wasn't so walled off from the hoots at her expense that she didn't feel the need to rise to her own defense. “People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing,” she once said.
The concert-hall-wide gulf between Jenkins' ability and her ambition is the span where “Glorious,” a comedy by British playwright Peter Quilter and the new production at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, is perched. The cast of six is directed by Nicole Capri Bauer, the Rep vet who is normally found working with much younger actors that make up the Rep's Summer Musical Theatre Intensive training program.
“I love my young artists but it is nice to work with actors who can drive and vote,” Bauer notes.
In “Glorious” Bauer and her cast have a subject that is almost the negative image of the polished young professionals that emerge from the Rep's training program. The real-life Jenkins wanted to study voice abroad when she was young but was rebuffed by her father. Later, when her inheritance gave her the liberty to perform whenever and wherever she liked, she chose none other than the intimidating Carnegie Hall for a venue.
“She is a woman of extremes, great passions and great theatricality,” says Patricia Kilgarrif, who portrays Jenkins. Around Jenkins floats an equally eccentric court — a close friend (Dorothy, played by Joan Porter), a maid that speaks no English (Lillian Castillo), a boyfriend (Herman Petras) and a new accompanist (Darren Dustan). Kilgarrif, who has graced the Broadway stage and worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company, points not to the music but the relationship with her young accompanist as the heart of “Glorious.”
“The music is really incidental I think,” Kilgarrif says.
The agreement among the cast is that Quilter's play emphasizes Jenkins' desire and that is what wins the day even as her rotten voice marks her for infamy.
“My character is swept by what [Jenkins] is able to do with what she has and that makes her attractive to him,” says Petras of his character St. Clair.
Kilgarrif rebuffs the question about whether an actress who is required to sing badly on stage must be an accomplished singer first.
“I am asked that quite a lot,” Kilgarrif says. “I can only say that I worked in musical theater for many years. I have a serviceable voice for that, but I don't have a great voice. So I guess the answer is yes.”
Quilter isn't the only writer that has been drawn to the striking off-key warbling of the New York heiress. Different takes on Jenkins have been staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and on Broadway. It makes one wonder if sometime in the future we will line up for theatrical works about other noted vocal butchers — “William Hung: The Musical,” anybody?
“[Jenkins] is a spokesperson for everybody who is a dreamer,” says Bauer. “You know, the ugly duckling that turns into the swan. There are laugh out loud moments in our show but it's about being a dreamer, having heart.”
Arkansas Repertory Theatre
March 12-28, $20-$35
7 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday