Phoenix Theatre had a good crowd for Sunday evening’s performance of “Glorious,” a play based on the true story of a woman named Florence Foster Jenkins whose massacre of musical stylings during the early- to mid-1900s led her, and a loyal band of friends, marching triumphantly all the way to a sold-out vocal performance at Carnegie Hall.
It’s not surprising since the reviews of “Glorious” have been justifiably good, and I’ve never really seen anything but a full house at this venue. Phoenix Theatre has their own band of followers whose loyalty is consistently earned with brilliant show selections and bold performances.
I was there as part of parent night for Arizona School for the Arts, a charter school whose theater students (including my youngest daughter) benefit from training with the theater’s artists and other professionals.
“Glorious” doesn’t make my list of favorite works, but that has nothing to do with the Phoenix Theatre production. I left glad I’d experienced it, in no small measure because of their casting choices. Each of the six actors made their roles sing (singing, of course, is a relative term given the subject matter of this piece). When I say sing here, I mean it in a good way, not a garish one.
There’s no room for error when there are only six of you (plus one stuffed animal prone to perilous poses) on a small stage with just a handful of set pieces and props—velvety drapes in seafoam green, a shiny black piano, a couch coupled with a chair, vases brimming with flowers and a tea cart that does double duty when it’s time to wheel the dead dog to his grave.
I was most intrigued by the couch. It reminded me of a near-contemporary of Jenkins (1868-1944)—the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). As written, this piece is a sweet and charming look at our “sometimes follies, but ever friends” lives. I wanted it to be so much more.
We see Jenkins’ intimate circle of companions—an out-of-work actor, an effusive and flamboyant friend, and a naughty-in-ways-she-never-suspects piano player—support her unfailingly at every turn. It’s endearing. But something is missing: the why.
We discover the motive behind Jenkins’ unflinching loyalty to music and its muse. Simply put—father issues. But we never learn why Jenkins commands such loyalty from others. It appears to be something much more than her wealth. But what then?
Her childlike spirit? Her optimism? Her dedication to her art? I felt myself wanting to know much more about the people in her life—how they got there and why they stayed. And I got to wondering whether there isn’t a little bit of Jenkins in us all.
If circumstances allowed you to follow your dreams unfettered, would you do it? At what point would naysayers nix your plans? Would you inspire others to take the journey with you, as did Jenkins—or simply brave it alone?
Would you want your friends to behave any differently than Jenkins’ friends? Would you really want to be told that the gifts you see in yourself are mere figments of your imagination?
Would you listen to the voice in your own head or the voices of others?
This is precisely the choice Jenkins has to make when a critic makes her way onstage during Jenkins’ Carnegie Hall concert and suggests with little tact that talent will never trespass on the stage so long as Jenkins sings upon it.
I enjoyed my journey from Jenkins’ parlor at home to that final concert she gave just one month and one day before her death. Along the way, there was a happy parade of lighthearted one-liners with lovely laughter and a testament to the power of authenticity to attract and engage others.
Jenkins’ pianist, Cosme McMoon, might have had bigger dreams most nights he accompanied her. But at the end of the night, he never regretted being there.
Note: Phoenix Theatre presents “Glorious” through Jan. 24th. To order tickets, call 602-254-2151.