The Real Florence Foster Jenkins
The Real Florence Foster Jenkins

By Peter Quilter
Directed by Robert More
Performed by Danny Johnson, Jo-Ann Waytowich, Viviana Zarrillo
Victoria Playhouse Petrolia
July 26 to August 13, 2011
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Murder on the High Cs

I’m sure there are many audience members at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia who are wondering why they paid good money to hear bad singing in the show Glorious. And I mean bad!

It’s the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, who was known as the “world’s worst opera singer”, and yet she had a singing career in the 1920s and 30s, through to her death in 1944. This tale is indeed one of those where truth is stranger than fiction.

Florence thought she was a soprano, and rejected the nay-sayers who told her she couldn’t sing. Fortunately, she had the money to produce her own concerts, and did so. Her accompanist was Cosmé McMoon, a young man who went along with her bad singing and by all accounts, enjoyed the ride. Because she was so amazingly bad, she attracted audiences – those her heard her would tell their friends how bad she was, and then they went to her next concert because they couldn’t believe it. She interviewed each person before she would sell him or her a concert ticket to make sure they were music lovers, and once a year put on a show at Ritz Carleton. Eventually her singing career was crowned with a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. Apparently she started questioning her confidence in her singing, and wondered if the people came to hear her or to laugh at her.

Jo-Ann Waytowich is charming and delightful as Florence Foster Jenkins. She is familiar to Victoria Playhouse audiences as Ivanka: Waytowich has presented her popular series of funny plays at VPP in the past. Waytowich’s horrendous singing as Florence is most astounding. We know, having seen Waytowich on stage in the past, that she is a trained vocalist and sings beautifully. She deserves a lot of credit for singing so badly – it’s amazing. Wikipedia describes Florence as “an American soprano who became famous for her complete lack of rhythm, pitch, tone, and overall singing ability.” Waytowich has certainly achieved all those inabilities.

Viviana Zarrillo brings comedy to the show playing three different characters. She is Florence’s friend Dorothy, who must be tone-deaf as she encourages Florence’s singing career. She also plays Maria, the angry Spanish-speaking maid. Zarrillo is hilarious in this role, chattering away and stomping about. Later she plays the incredulous Mrs. Verrinder-Gedge who is appalled by the terrible singing and can’t understand how Florence carries on. She uselessly tries to tell Florence she can’t sing, but Florence, determined to ignore those who don’t support her. Zarrillo demonstrates her comical skills in portraying her character’s frustration.

Danny Johnson is accompanist Cosmé McMoon, who is also the narrator of the story. Johnson is a very talented piano player – it must have been difficult for Waytowich to sing off-key along with him.

It was fun to see the costumes that Florence chose for her concerts. First there was the Spanish look, complete with castanets, where she generously tosses roses into the audience. Later she appears as an angel with moving wings for her Carnegie Hall concert.

My only concerns with this show are the actual script. It calls for the character to sing complete songs in her ear-piercing off-key style. Thank you very much, but we got the idea in the first few bars – we don’t need to the full version of the song. McMoon’s narration towards the end of show is very telling. He points out that to her own ears, Florence Foster Jenkins sounded wonderful. So why not have Florence on stage completely alone, singing in a beautiful voice? After all, that’s what she herself heard. Having Jo-Anne Waytowich on stage without hearing her actually sing seems like a waste.

If Florence Foster Jenkins was still alive today, I’m sure she would be auditioning for American Idol. And just as in her day, the audience would delight in laughing at her. But as she herself said, “Some people said I couldn’t sing, but no one could say I didn’t sing.”

Glorious continues with eight shows a week at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until August 13. Call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or 519-882-1221 for tickets.


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