How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Pay for it, of course.
Or so was the strategy of Florence Foster Jenkins, the New York City socialite and aspiring singer who made her debut at the famed concert hall by buying her way in. Jenkins became a cult icon in the music scene in the 1940s, known for being incredibly awful – so much so that one critic described a performance as suggesting “the untrammeled swoop of some great bird.”
But she also was incredibly brave, evidenced by the dramatic arc of Peter Quilter’s 2005 comedy “Glorious!”, which received rave reviews for its West End premiere, and has since become an international hit. Mary Kate O’Connell reprises her role as the “first lady of the sliding scale” (she premiered the role in Buffalo in 2008), here directed by Steve Vaughn in O’Connell & Company’s new home at the Ken-Ton Elmwood Commons.
“Glorious!” is a small-scale farce that aims for the light comedic touch of old Broadway – think Neil Simon with less slamming doors. It charts the introduction of Cosme McMoon (played by Gregory Gjurich), a youngish piano player auditioning to be Jenkins' accompanist, into the inner sanctum of her private life. The would-be star has built a critic-proof circle of supporters and confidants, including her boozy out-of-work actor boyfriend St. Clair (Roger VanDette), eccentric neighbor Dorothy (Anne Gayley) and exasperated maid Maria (Smirna Mercedes).
The play is at its best when it invites the audience in on the joke – Cosme is shocked the first time he hears Jenkins butcher an aria, and watching him backpedal to cover his reaction is a delight. O’Connell is doing some fine work, too. It takes a great deal of technical finesse to deliver an intentionally bad performance, especially when it's sung. O’Connell along with Gjurich on piano produce some seriously funny moments together throughout the night.
But director Vaughn could afford to tinker with the relationships a little more, especially in the play’s first few scenes when it is unclear just how innocent Jenkins and her compatriots are in the charade. Is St. Clair a loving partner, or just a dramatic opportunist? What does Dorothy stand to gain from her neighbor’s fame? And does Florence really believe she can sing? There’s some unmined material that would enrich the comedy, especially in a show so thinly plotted.
And as for Cosme, the beginning of the play is the most crucial, when he is being wooed and initiated. Gjurich plays him with a nebbish timidity, overwhelmed by the lavishness and absurdity he’s been invited into. It doesn’t quite work, especially as he makes the shift from what he calls a “cynical pianist” to a true believer in Florence’s goodness. Gjurich does land some sincere moments in the play’s coda, eulogizing Jenkins' death just a short month after the Carnegie Hall debut.
The tale of Florence Foster Jenkins was given the film treatment in 2016 with Meryl Streep in the title role. That movie, and Quilter’s re-telling here, posited that we all desire acclaim and recognition, and that seeking a certain level of fame could be considered a courageous and noble undertaking. The note that O’Connell & Company’s production lands on is a sweetly hopeful one, reclaiming art as a great equalizer, available to anyone with a dream. And isn’t that glorious.
★ ★ ★ (out of 4)
Presented by O'Connell & Company through March 1 in the Ken-Ton Commons (3200 Elmwood Ave., Tonawanda). Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $32 general, $27 seniors, $17 students, industry, military and children (848-0800 or oconnellandcompany.com)