by Charles Brousse
Whatever its shortcomings, Peter Quilter’s play Glorious!, currently on view on weekends in the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theater, may provide some insights on the unexpected popularity of presidential candidate Donald Trump. In a minute I’ll tell you why.
First, to the event itself. Glorious! is the first offering in RVP’s seven-play 2015-16 season, the 86th for this venerable company, whose members toil for love of what they do rather than fame or riches. For the RVP play selection committee it probably seemed a safe choice, the kind of frothy, small cast, easy-to-stage comedy that has traditionally been the bread and butter of community theaters around the country. Actors who fit the role descriptions were available and a comedy about someone billed as “the worst singer in the world” promised plenty of laughs.
Turns out, Glorious! is essentially a one-joke script that eventually collapses under the sheer weight of its repetitions. Ellen Brooks, an RVP regular capable of singing beautifully when the occasion warrants, brings a gutsy energy to the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, a real-life wealthy would-be diva who entertained invited audiences at soirees in her opulent New York hotel suite during the closing years of World War II. When she announced that to cap her career she would do a solo concert at 3,000-seat Carnegie Hall, her detractors predicted a disaster, pointing out that she had no sense of pitch, no phrasing, no vocal control and couldn’t carry a tune. Who would pay to see her? While all of these observations were accurate, to their chagrin she filled the hall with jubilant supporters.
Having listened to Jenkins’ original recordings, I can confirm that Brooks’ singing (if you can call it that) is at least as awful as the woman she is mimicking, and her portrayal of Jenkins as a rich eccentric is right on the mark. However, after a half-dozen full-throated screeches, the butchering of a Mozart aria and an endless stream of misguided self-promotion, the joke wears thin.
RVP’s supporting cast do generate occasional comic sparks. Mitchell Field, who looks and sounds like a typical semi-retired New York “man about town,” is well cast as Jenkins’ consort. Dependent on her largesse, he’s generous with his public praise, less so in private. Her faithful accompanist, Cosme McMoon, played by Dan Morgan, whose gay lifestyle is financially supported by their close working relationship, is another associate who sustains an awkward balance between his employer’s reality and her obvious fantasy. Maria (Maureen O’Donoghue), Jenkins’ non-English-speaking housemaid, has some funny moments when their communication breaks down, and Eileen Fisher, her flighty young neighbor at the hotel, tries hard to give her cartoonish character some dimensionality, but is defeated by Quilter’s script.
It’s all very lightweight stuff—good for a chuckle or two, but not much beyond that. As for the linkage with Trump, I see a strong parallel between Jenkins’ popularity (despite her absolute lack of talent), and the passionate support currently being given this clownish aspirant for the presidency. Part of the explanation (described in Glorious! director Billie Cox’s program note) is a widespread tendency to value action over inaction, even if it’s misguided. Part may be antiestablishment protest, and part a belief that to embrace inexplicable public lunacy is one way of asserting a “cool” individualism. In Jenkins’ case, the infatuation quickly ran its course. Hopefully, that will also be the case with The Donald.
NOW PLAYING: Glorious! runs through October 18 at Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theater, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.