A glorious theatrical subject is more or less squandered in author Peter Quilter’s lame tribute to the squeaky soprano du jour, Florence Foster Jenkins, “Glorious!” Opening exactly a week prior to the Broadway debut of “Souvenir” on the same subject, play seems intended first as a vehicle for popular English comedian Maureen Lipman and only marginally as an investigation into what made the uniquely, uh, gifted Jenkins tick. Undemanding in the extreme, show may appeal to what’s left of the West End carriage trade, as served up in an Alan Strachan production every bit as broad as Lipman’s (padded) hips.
The star found a happy sinecure some seasons ago playing stalwart British funnywoman Joyce Grenfell, touring with that show to the U.S. And there’s more than a trace of the goofy Grenfell to Lipman’s take on Jenkins, who seems less a comfortably deluded visionary than a walking punchline with her own oddball laugh.
What possessed Jenkins to take her belief in a God-given lack of talent right up to her grave? “Glorious!” doesn’t pretend to provide an answer, substituting platitudes (“she is a symbol to all those who dream but never dared”) for character analysis and craven appeals for laughter and tears in place of pungent writing.
The play is set in 1944 in the period leading up to and away from Jenkins’ historic Carnegie Hall concert — Lipman pronounces the word “Car-niggy” — during which 2,000 customers were turned away. We look on as Jenkins battles with her non-English-speaking Mexican maid (Janie Booth in a woeful part), accepts paeans from an admiring Englishman (a suave Barrie Ingham) and breaks in new accompanist Cosme (Michael Blore).
Much is made of Cosme being self-evidently gay to everyone except the cheerfully myopic Jenkins, who is too busy rolling her R’s as needed and throwing roses to her audience to bother registering a colleague’s sexuality.
Time is paid both to Jenkins’ claque (Josie Kidd as the wide-eyed Dorothy, who seems so named so she can prompt a “friend of Dorothy” joke late on) and to the opposition: New York society matron Mrs. Verindah-Gedge (Lolly Susi), who stands alone in not falling for the very hype by which Jenkins lives.
Through it all, Lipman bustles her way about Simon Higlett’s deliberately askew proscenium arch, the show’s scenic framework offering a visual clue to Jenkins’ off-center view of existence. “If things don’t wobble when you walk, you should eat more dinner,” she says, making plain her preferred physique. As for that voice? “I love it that anybody seems to love me,” is the assessment of a talent here pitched halfway between Norma Desmond and Lucille Ball.
Scattered glimpses appear of the evening “Glorious!” could be, though it’s clear enough from the central casting that a concert is not among them. (Lipman’s musical credits have extended to such let’s-speak-the-number roles as Aunt Eller in “Oklahoma!”) It’s impossible not be moved by Jenkins’ thoroughgoing commitment to hearing beauty and perfection where others decode a singular bray.
And, rather intriguingly, Quilter’s script does allow for a level of self-awareness that hasn’t always been present in previous stage portraits of Jenkins (of which this is the third to reach the U.K. in recent years). Early on, Jenkins is described interviewing would-be ticket-buyers in order “to root out the enemy” who might be attending only to jeer.
Lipman, by contrast, commands respect throughout, without reaching the sublimity inherent in the part. She makes a respectable way through three numbers, the “Queen of the Night” aria among them, without generating the audience-inducing frisson that must go with the territory when you have a performer singing badly whom you know can sing truly beautifully, too.
Game for anything, Lipman’s Jenkins looks ridiculous and mock-regal, in turn, as required by the hagiographic arc of Quilter’s script. Those wanting to know what kept Jenkins going will leave “Glorious!” scarcely the wiser, but Lipman, to her credit, can come out squawking with a Jenkins-style F-sharp even when the evening around her is falling notably flat.