GLORIOUS by Peter Quilter, directed by Christopher Newton, with Nicola Cavendish, Christopher Hunt, Jonathan Monro, Heather Lea MacCallum, Dixie Seatle and Maria Vacratsis. Presented by CanStage at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). Opens tonight (Thursday, November 23) and runs to December 16, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, mats Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday 2 pm. $20-$95, Monday pwyc, some rush. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Not every Canadian actor/musician gets to relive his own Carnegie Hall debut eight times a week.
But Jonathan Monro does it every time he gets to the last act of Peter Quilter's Glorious, the latest CanStage show.
Monro plays Cosmé Moon, accompanist to awesomely awful American soprano Florence Foster Jenkins (they were both real people), performing on the piano while the central character sings a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall.
Back in 1991, the classically trained Monro got a call at his Newfoundland home from the Hall's management, inviting him to be part of an annual recital by international pianists.
"I think about it every performance of Glorious," he says with an understandable smile. "Even before I step onstage, I have the jitters anticipating how the play's imaginary Carnegie Hall audience will react.
"It's thrilling and overwhelming at the same time."
These days, Monro's spending more time as an actor than a pianist; his resumé includes several seasons at Stratford and the Atlantic Theatre Festival. In Toronto, he was in The Producers, and earlier toured the States with 2 Pianos, 4 Hands.
Despite all his acting work, Monro still composes. Last summer, CanStage workshopped his song cycle Variations On A Nervous Breakdown, which he's developing as a screenplay, and he's also involved in a community-based opera project.
These days, though, the performer's focused on keeping his Florence Foster Jenkins, the wonderful Nicola Cavendish, on musical track.
An heiress convinced of the excellence of her singing, Jenkins, who made several self-financed recordings, was undeterred by critics who found her vocal efforts several notches below the yowling of hounds.
"She was well taught and coached, I imagine," says Monro over a pre-rehearsal lunch, "but was discouraged from singing in public because she was close to tone deaf. I'm sure she had little idea of the sound she was making, but you can tell in her recordings that she loved making music."
Moon, at one level the play's narrator, begins by being astounded that someone so talentless would sing outside the shower.
"The play shows how he slowly and reluctantly became a friend and champion as he got to know her heart and spirit. And," Monro adds with a laugh, "her musical faults.
"By the end, he sees her as one of the few people he knows who truly pursue their dreams. That's what attracts Moon, a young gay man in 40s New York, to her. Her bravery and sense of social defiance allow him to live vicariously through her.
"He latches onto her power train and just keeps going."
Accompanying Cavendish, who has a better voice than Jenkins, means sometimes giving her the melody line or following her character's erratic tempi. No two shows, says Monro, are the same.
"She adds her own raw edge to the songs, sometime going for broke. The Queen Of The Night aria from The Magic Flute is unsingable by the untrained, but the result here is funny and even beautiful, though in a scary way."