Oh, the glory of the human voice.
And the power of the human mind to hear one’s own voice, and somehow experience it as beautiful when to other’s it’s . . . not.
Not even good.
Which brings us to Florence Foster Jenkins.
That’s her we are listening to now, from a recording she made in 1944.
Jenkins was, in her time, a famous singer. She once sold out Carnegie Hall, packing the place with people eager to find out if the wacky socialite from Manhatten was really as bad as everyone said she was. The wild thing was, Jenkins was one of the only people who had no idea what she actually sounded like. Was she mistaken, mislead perhaps, mentally ill, or just really, really in love with the idea of being a singer?
Those are the questions that are raised in the play Glorious! by Peter Quilter, running through October 18 at Ross Valley Players in Ross, in Marin County.
It’s a little ironic that in creating a script that celebrates Florence Foster Jenkins, the playwright has created something as eccentric and strange and unexpectedly sweet as Jenkin’s herself . . . and just as mediocre.
In all fairness, there isn’t really much about the Jenkins life from which to build a full story, and this ultra slight, plot-thin comedic farce avoids some of the more interesting things. The result is, well, kind of a one-joke story with no real story.
And the running joke about a really old dog does not count as plot.
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 way, a deeply cruel joke.
In the Ross Valley Players staging—unevenly orchestrated by the usually excellent director Billie Cox—the best thing about the show is the charming, infectiously upbeat performance of Ellen Brooks as Jenkins.
There is also 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 seemed genuinely devoted to her and her singing efforts.
Also, good, if a little one-note, is Dan Morgan as the accompanist McMoon, whose transition from grudging employee to affectionate friend provides what little there is in the way of plot. As Maria—Jenken’s cranky Mexican maid, Maureen O’Donoghue does a lot with a slight role, but as an affronted music fan attempting to burst Jenkin’s bubble, Jackie Blue is allowed to do far too much with far too little. Apparently intended as the antagonist of the play, she’s far too ridiculous and cartoonish to be taken seriously, even as comic relief.
As Jenkins friend supporter Dorothy, Ellen Fisher creates a goofy but affectionate caricature of a devoted friend, who might be even crazier than Jenkins.
Through it all, there is an authentic sweetness to the proceedings, but the play is ultimately as lacking in substance and depth as was the infamous singing voice of its hapless subject. Glorious! is diverting and amusing and sometimes funny, but funny in a sad way.
Just like Jenkins.
‘Glorious!’ runs Thursday–Sunday through Oct. 18 at Ross Valley Players. Rossvalleyplayers.com