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Uneasy Listening

Theatre Three’s Jac Alder has a tricky task: how to stage a beautiful play about a wonderfully bad opera singer. PLUS: SMU’s Claudia Stephens designs costumes fit for a fashion designer.
GETTING AN EARFUL: Jac Alder says the playwright approached him via e-mail, of all things.
Photography by Chad Blockley

From 1912 until 1944, a wealthy Philadelphia woman named Florence Foster Jenkins sang—in public—operatic arias from Mozart, Verdi, and Strauss; Lieder by Schubert and others; and original works by her accompanist, a man really and truly named Cosme McMoon. She gave sold-out public recitals, including annual performances at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City. The crowning moment of her career was a concert at Carnegie Hall when she was 76 years old.

Florence Foster Jenkins seems to have been invented and sent into the world by a prankster god, either to provide the musical score for World War I, the Depression, and World War II or to serve as a metaphor for the century of The Waste Land. Playwrights are doing their best to come up with what her life means, what she portends, what comparison she might invoke.

Peter Quilter’s Glorious!, opening November 9 at Theatre Three, is one of two plays about the infamous singer that appeared almost simultaneously last year (along with Stephen Temperley’s two-actor play, Souvenir). It’s as though both playwrights, responding to some deep, irresistible chord in the zeitgeist, had both realized that the world must come to terms—now—with the phenomenon of Florence Foster Jenkins and her remarkable voice.

I could try to describe the particular quality of that voice. Fortunately, evidence of her talent has come down to us, because she recorded nine arias, accompanied by McMoon. On Amazon.com, you can type in the name Florence Foster Jenkins, click on the album called The Glory (???) of the Human Voice, and listen to a sample.

It calls for epic similes. Think of a mosquito dropping down toward the plump, succulent hand of a child reading beside the pool late on a summer afternoon. Just as it gets ready for the landing, the child lifts her hand to scratch her forehead, and the startled mosquito, whizzing off uncertainly, reorients itself until it locates the hand again, starts down—and the hand suddenly turns a page. Over and over, always with undaunted confidence, never settling on another, more tranquil spot, the mosquito keeps trying and never succeeds. Just so, as Homer or Vergil (or the mocking Alexander Pope) might say, Florence Foster Jenkins’ voice pursues every note, misses every one, and never wearies.

She is just unbelievably bad.

Late in August, I talked to Jac Alder, Theatre Three’s executive producer-director and co-founder, about Florence Foster Jenkins and the new play, which he is building around Connie Coit as the “first lady of the sliding scale.” Besides The Full Monty, which was just finishing its extended run, he had at least four other plays on his mind. The Theatre Too production of Only Heaven, very demanding musically, had been pushed back a week because of the success of The Full Monty. Camilla Carr’s All About Bette, starring Morgana Shaw, which he had directed earlier in the summer, was still very present to him. Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré was opening in mid-September, followed by Bryony Lavery’s edgy Frozen, about a child predator, a mother, and a criminologist. It would be a month or more before he could really turn his attention to Glorious!

On most days, Alder “takes a playwright to lunch”—that is, reads a play—because he’s always on the lookout for what Theatre Three might produce. This time, though, the play came to him. Grateful as he is to have it, he seems almost scandalized by how he got it.

“I was approached by this playwright through e-mail!” he says. “Not an agent. The playwright!”

He tells the story of Dallas playwright D.L. Coburn coming back to Dallas after the success of The Gin Game in 1977. Coburn called to get his advice about arrangements for a local production, and Alder was horrified. “I told him to go write! Let other people do that stuff. Playwrights should write!” He has no idea how Peter Quilter, whose play has not been produced in the United States since its opening last year in London, happened to know about him.

But Alder knew about Florence Foster Jenkins 50 years ago, probably because she so perfectly embodied—and wildly distorted—what he had been brought up to respect most. His paternal grandfather had operatic ambitions, and his mother, a piano teacher, still practices daily at 91. When he got the script, it all came back.

“I had laughed at Florence Foster Jenkins till I wet myself all through the ’50s when I had the record. Oh my God. It’s just unbelievable! Connie Coit is scared to death. Connie’s, of course, a legit coloratura soprano. Then you get all those—bad sounds.” He laughs. “And it’s the brave struggle to get a note—to find it.”

In the play itself, hilariously light from beginning to end because of the sheer impenetrability of Florence’s self-regard, the act of trying to find the note gives it some of its earliest and best humor. For example, Cosme McMoon answers Florence’s ad for an accompanist, never having heard her. After some preliminary chatting, he plays the exercise, and she sings along—”wildly off-key” and with hurricane force. (“I am blessed with excessive volume,” she says.) At the end, the obviously (except to Florence) gay Cosme stares at her.

FLORENCE: Is everything all right?

COSME: What? Oh yes—yes. I was just, erm—sorry. No, it was just that, erm—

FLORENCE: Your face is all—You look a little—in pain?

COSME: No, no. It’s just—


COSME: Well, to be completely honest— (Quickly covering) You reminded me suddenly of my mother.

FLORENCE: Oh. Could she sing?

COSME: Not a note. (Covering again) But that’s not what I mean. Your eyes—she has the same eyes.

The play could easily devolve into a series of joke songs, but Glorious! has legs—there’s a joke in that, which I’ll get to—because its wit (with a nod to Oscar Wilde) deals with saying what can’t be spoken outright, such as the fact that Florence can’t sing or that Cosme is gay.

“What I think is smart about this comedy,” Alder says, “is that it’s based on Florence Foster Jenkins’ life and real friends and associates. It’s smart not to just give you an evening of bad singing. This is what’s funny about her life—which is pretty amazing. She was a very wealthy woman, very lovable by all accounts, and very eccentric. Just completely unaware, just hopeless!”

To do the play in the round will require considerable adjustment, but Alder’s not worried. “We’ve been dealing with that for 43 years. We’ll figure it out,” he says. “Actually, there’s a gag in there about a dead dog that’s going to be harder to conceal in the round.”

The gag involves Ricky, the dog who belongs to Dorothy, a woman almost as eccentric as her friend Florence. When the audience first sees Ricky (after he’s fondly mentioned a number of times), he is discovered lying on the floor “with his legs stiffly raised in the air, motionless.” Quilter’s stage direction is illuminating: “The role of Ricky is taken by an extremely realistic stuffed or artificial animal.” Saying that Ricky is dead would be rude, like telling Florence that she can’t sing—not that people don’t try all through the play, including a scandalized opera lover named Mrs. Verindah-Gedge. But who can defeat a woman who sells out Carnegie Hall months in advance and who performs her great concert costumed in great angel wings?

So I ask Alder, Why two plays right now?

“Well,” he says, “I think it’s just two plays that happened to come out at the same time. I don’t think that throughout the culture people are dialing away from news of Iraq to see Florence Foster Jenkins.”

You’d really need to hear the tone—deprecating, ironic, amused. It puts things into perspective. But it also makes you wonder whether Jac Alder doesn’t have a pretty good idea, after 45 years of theater in Dallas, of exactly why Florence Foster Jenkins still commands the stage in a world of large illusions. I suspect he gets an occasional e-mail from the prankster god himself.

Designing Woman
Costume designer Claudia Stephens pays homage to Balenciaga in La Discreta Enamorada at SMU.

Texas native Claudia Stephens has designed a lot of costumes. Ever heard of Dirty Dancing? She did that. But she’s having a particularly good time with her current assignment. “How could one not love looking at the work of one of the greatest designers of the 20th century?” asks Stephens, an associate professor of theater at SMU. She’s speaking, of course, about Cristóbal Balenciaga, whose work inspired Stephens’ designs for SMU’s upcoming production of La Discreta Enamorada (In Love But Discreet), which runs November 15-19 at the Greer Garson Theater. Although the play was written in 1606 and originally set in Madrid, SMU’s production will be set in 1950s Paris. For this ambitious production, the school has also brought in guest Spanish director Gustavo Tambascio and will present three shows in Spanish featuring local Spanish-speaking actors.

So why Balenciaga? “The costumes evoke an era and provide a kind of touchstone,” Stephens says. “Many people will recognize the shapes and the renewed sense of femininity and connect those with memories of their own mothers and grandmothers.”

SMU is also hosting an important exhibition of Balenciaga’s designs in the spring. The show calls for 40 to 50 costumes for a range of settings—a wedding, a nightclub, the streets of town, several dances, and two dream sequences, allowing the Balenciaga-inspired designs to take center stage.

Stephens came to Dallas after years of freelancing in New York. She admits costuming La Discreta Enamorada will be no easy task. “It’s a challenge to make it all make sense,” Stephens says. “But I love that challenge.” —JENNY BLOCK

Save the Dates

Through November 5
Teatro Dallas has a lock on fall horror shows—and don’t think it’s mere Halloween. Celebrating the traditional Mexican Days of the Dead, the theater presents The Tall Woman (La Mujer Alta), a chilling story from 19th-century Spain by Pedro Antonio Alarcón, adapted, translated, and directed by the “queen vampire mother,” Cora Cardona. 1331 Record Crossing Rd. 214-689-6492.

Every Trick in the Book
Photography courtesy of Classical Acting Company

November 2 – December 10
Regan Adair directs the Feydeau farce Every Trick in the Book, and anybody who remembers the last one at Classical Acting Company, A Flea in Her Ear in 2004, will be looking forward to the new antics. After her husband’s death, a wife discovers his book detailing his indiscretions, and she’s fully armed against her new husband’s tricks when she marries a second time. Arts Centre Theatre, 1028 E. 15th Pl., Plano. 214-505-1655. www.classicalactingcompany.com.

November 25 – December 22
Theatre Britain doesn’t just specialize in cultured accents and buff Macbeths, but also in reviving traditional British forms—especially “Panto.” Not only is there a fractured fairy-tale plot to follow in Cinderella, but there are “songs, dances, larger-than-life characters, and jokes galore” to usher in the holiday season. Trinity River Arts Center, 2600 N. Stemmons Fwy., Ste. 180. 972-490-4202. www.theatre-britain.com.

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