How do you get to Carnegie Hall? For Florence Foster Jenkins, the answer was, inherit a fortune from your father and buy your way onto the stage.
The Rep's latest production, “Glorious!” by Peter Quilter, is the story of this infamously unskilled opera singer and her unlikely success, culminating in a performance at Carnegie Hall. Success is the wrong word. Notoriety. Or better still, celebrity. Jenkins was a laughingstock and her audiences ironically applauded her out-of-tune arias and her obliviousness.
Patricia Kilgarriff, the actress who bears the burden of skillfully portraying the unskillful Jenkins, seems, like the rest of the cast, to live by the motto: When in doubt, over-emote. Fortunately for the performers, the overacting befits the subject.
Jenkins' comrades are a circle of aging socialites who style themselves as artists, actors and singers. (Imagine Paris Hilton deciding she is an opera singer.)
This is rich territory for a biting comedy about the social elite, privilege and lack of self-awareness. But “Glorious!” chooses not to engage these issues, opting instead for the easiest sort of humor. The script is propelled not by good dialogue but by cheap jokes — the Mexican housekeeper who doesn't understand English, the secretly gay piano player, the flatulent old man, the dead dog.
Fine. Comedy, even unsophisticated comedy, has its place in the theater and can offer mindless escape. But this is not what “Glorious!” offers. The play brings the ethos of reality television — unearned stardom, purchased celebrity, pedantic moralizing — to the stage. What it offers is an historical figure made contemporary and shallow, and then demands the audience revere her. (Picture again the opera-singing Paris Hilton. Now imagine being asked not only to sympathize with her but to venerate her.)
With only a handful of characters prancing around on stage to distract, it doesn't take long to realize that “Glorious!” has no discernible plot. The play is little more than three butchered songs (in this instance, “butchered” is good) held together by an hour of filler jokes and, in one scene in the second act, by the sleight of hand known as “audience participation.” The real playgoers become the audience at one of Jenkins' performance, obliged to applaud a (doubly) bad performance.
“Glorious!” tries to rescue itself from its own shortcomings by foisting a feel-good lesson upon the audience — follow your dreams, etc., etc. But this only makes the play more deeply unsatisfying. The audience is asked to ignore Jenkins' blindness to reality and instead admire her for her perseverance and devotion to her dream.
The only honest voice in the play is that of a music lover who stands up to this pop culture phenomenon and requests that Jenkins, for her own sake and that of the audience, stop performing. That the rational critic is portrayed as a fanatic and an enemy of dreamers everywhere is the best commentary I could offer on the play.