Florence Foster Jenkins apparently hated critics. That's too bad, since this critic finds herself liking Madame J quite a lot. Stephen Temperley found her story to be attractive enough to write a musical about her. She was quite the character. A real woman who became famous because she couldn't sing a note! She was a comic hit, and didn't know it. People would stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths and double over to keep from laughing out loud. If you try it, you'll find that it actually makes what you're laughing at funnier, because you can't give in to the humor and let it out.
A two-person play, now at SecondStory Repertory in Redmond, the leads have to be stupendous and they are. Mark Rabe is known around town for his musical direction and his acting musically. He plays every kind of piano piece effortlessly, regardless of genre. He plays Florence's accompanist, Cosme McMoon. McMoon is a reluctant accompanist, thinking of it as just one concert and of his need to pay the rent. But Florence is hard to say no to.
Kathleen Roche-Zujko plays Florence. That means that she has to sing everything wrong. And not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong. And not just spectacularly wrong, but funny wrong. But she has to be serious and believe that everything she is singing is beautifully on tune. Roche-Zujko does a masterful job. Finally, at the end, she gets to demonstrate her beautiful, on-key voice. It made several in the audience tear up.
The first few moments of the evening started off so awkwardly that one might think the whole evening was going to be very uncomfortable. Whatever the instruction was to the actors, they were brittle and almost unfunny. However, when McMoon falls in love with Jenkins (no, not that way!), the show warms up and the chemistry works beautifully.
A very visible aspect of the show is the numerous costumes Jenkins comes out in. Apparently, according to History, Jenkins became so famous (infamous?) that she was asked to play Carnegie Hall – the ultimate compliment in music. And for that occasion, she had a different dress made for every song. Costume designer Laurie Roberts had her hands full. Roberts rose to the challenge and created some fabulous, kitchy concoctions.
Audience members who knew classical operatic pieces were convulsed more often than those who don't really know arias. But you don't need to know much classical music to enjoy. And you'll learn a few tidbits along the way. The show runs through August 15th and plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm. For more information, go to www.secondstoryrep.org or call 425-881-6777.