It’s ironic. In creating a script that celebrates Florence Foster Jenkins—renowned as one of the 20th century’s worst operatic sopranos—playwright Peter Quilter has achieved something as eccentric and unexpectedly sweet as Jenkins herself—but just as mediocre.
In all fairness, there isn’t really much about Jenkins’ life from which to build a full story, though this ultra-slight, plot-thin comedic farce does what it can.
What is it about Jenkins that fascinates playwrights so much? Over the last 25 years, there have been a string of plays based on her life. Though similarly flawed, the best is Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir. Quilter’s Glorious!, now running at the Ross Valley Players, is the best known, having been translated into 40 languages around the world.
There is charm in the story, certainly. But is charm enough? Glorious! suffers from the same malady that Jenkins did: a woeful insensitivity to tone, pitch and pacing. And though it makes a Herculean effort at turning Jenkins into some kind of self-actualized heroine, it can’t escape the uncomfortable truth that her popularity was, in many ways, a cruel joke. Fueled by her own belief that she could sing, Jenkins inspired a strange conspiracy among her friends, whose encouragement allowed her to continue believing in herself, and which packed Carnegie Hall with people eager to laugh at her.
In the RVP staging, unevenly orchestrated by the usually excellent director Billie Cox, the best thing about the show is the charming, infectiously upbeat performance by Ellen Brooks as Jenkins, with fine additional support by Mitchell Field as Jenkins’ roguish common-law husband St. Clair, a frequently unemployed, alcoholic actor, who depended on his paramour’s money, but was devoted to supporting her singing efforts.
Also, good, if a little one-note, is Daniel Morgan as the accompanist Cosmé McMoon, whose transition from grudging employee to affectionate friend provides what little there is in the way of plot. As Maria, Jenkins’ cranky Mexican maid, Maureen O’Donoghue does a lot with a slight role, but as an affronted music fan attempting to burst Jenkins’ bubble, Jackie Blue, playing Mrs. Verrinder-Gedge, is allowed to do far too much with far too little. Apparently intended as the antagonist, she’s too cartoonish to be taken seriously.
Though there is an authentic sweetness to the play, it’s ultimately as lacking in substance or depth as was the infamous singing voice of its hapless subject.
Rating (out of 5): ★★