Florence Foster Jenkins was Glorious, Phoenix Theatre’s Take on Her Life Is Not so Much

Those of us who get our kicks collecting recordings of people who can't sing (my current fave: Telly Savalas' 1975 vinyl opus Who Loves Ya, Baby?) already knew about Florence Foster Jenkins, a tone deaf old songbird beloved by fans of the absurd. And those of us who've seen Stephen Temperley's delightful play Souvenir, a tasteful and sophisticated celebration of Jenkins' life, can't help but compare the heights of the Temperley play with the silly depths of Glorious, Peter Quilter's very lowbrow comic take on the late lady's life.

Jenkins was a wealthy socialite who longed for a career on the stage, and who became a popular attraction in Manhattan in the early 20th century, mostly for her complete inability to carry a tune. Audiences came in droves to laugh at Jenkins, who reportedly was not in on the joke of her popularity, which culminated in an appearance at Carnegie Hall only weeks before her death in 1944.

Rather than bringing any real depth to this one-joke story, Quilter has instead strung together a series of long, broad comic sketches so filled with nudging and winking that I left Phoenix Theatre feeling slightly bruised. I also exited having been entertained, thanks to a well-appointed cast and in spite of the playwright's boorish biography.

These actors race to and fro on Carey Wong's gorgeous set, doing their best to make something of a script that takes endless liberties with Jenkins' story and isn't above the occasional fart joke. Jeffrey Wolf is excellent as Jenkins' live-in lover, a fallow actor whose broad gestures Wolf tempers with true tenderness toward his lover. As her effeminate accompanist, Toby Yatso fields an endless string of pansy jokes with high style, managing to make a one-dimensional stereotype into a real person with minimal mugging and flailing. And Neva Rae Powers, the only actor who's played Jenkins in both Souvenir and Glorious, brings some real warmth to a woman who — in this treatment, at least — is little more than a single, repeated punch line. There's a regal pride in Powers' stance, one that tells us all we need to know about Jenkins' odd delusion: She found her own warbling perfectly divine.

Director Daniel Schay signals wildly throughout that this is a farce, punching up an already campy construct with silliness like an obviously stuffed poodle in scenes involving the neighbor's dog and with goofball costuming tricks (each time she appears onstage, Maria Amorocho — whose wide talents are wasted in the role of Jenkins' maid — sports a different facial mole) and enough indicating to choke a mule.

I can't help but think that Jenkins would have hated Quilter's take on her life, which seeks to elicit the one thing she hated most from audiences: laughter, at her expense. Despite the estimable talents of a hardworking cast, Glorious is ultimately as flat and toneless as Jenkins was herself.