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Polishing the art of singing badly

Judy Kaye's inspired caterwauling, nominated for a Tony, is the highlight of the upcoming `Souvenir.'

October 08, 2006|David Ng | Special to The Times

New York — LISTENING to a Broadway star show off her vocal goods, you'd expect to hear a lot of flowing arpeggios, pitch-perfect high notes and frilly vibrato.

Not so with Judy Kaye.

In a New York rehearsal studio one recent afternoon, the opera-trained musical theater veteran is demonstrating just how badly she can mangle an aria from "Die Fledermaus." And she's succeeding admirably.

The grace notes that Johann Strauss intended as coquettish laughter sound like yelps of pain. The waltzing rhythm lurches drunkenly all over the time signature. The climactic high note -- a triumphant clarion call -- explodes like a foghorn blast.

"It doesn't hurt me when I sing like that," Kaye jokes when it's over. "I'm not pushing, I'm not straining." That's a good thing, since Kaye will have to shriek daily in "Souvenir," which opens Oct. 18 at the Brentwood Theatre.

In a role that brought her a Tony nomination, Kaye plays Florence Foster Jenkins, the infamous New York society lady of the 1930s and '40s who gave classical recitals (including one at Carnegie Hall) despite being completely tone-deaf. Her caterwauling drew a cult following and earned her nicknames like the "Diva of Din" and the "Screama Donna."

Reviews of "Souvenir" were mixed when it opened on Broadway last year, but critics swooned over Kaye's acts of musical vandalism. Variety said that for a singer of Kaye's talent, "producing such a shrill noise is a stunning technical achievement in itself." Newsday called it the "best worst performance" of the season.

"From what I've read, she was just one of these people who had an abundance of self-confidence," explains Kaye. "She truly heard what she wanted to hear."

To achieve Jenkins' special brand of awfulness, Kaye first practiced singing correctly but in the wrong key. If her accompanist played a song in E-flat, she would perform in D-flat. Kaye also worked on re-creating Jenkins' erratic sense of rhythm.

"We wanted an out-of-control feeling," says Tom Helm, the play's musical supervisor. "We spent time really working on how her voice would waver, instead of just being funny wrong notes."

Then there was the matter of projection. "Florence sang from her neck up," Kaye says. "In those days, it wasn't acknowledged that you could use the chest voice, which is a source of warmth. That's just the way women were taught."

Eventually, Kaye settled on a high-altitude falsetto for her character, somewhere between Julia Child and Margaret Rutherford. "Pitch is the head. It's not made in the throat," she explains. "You think the note."

*

A singer who delivers

PATTI LUPONE may have a bigger fan base. And Bernadette Peters may have a larger award shelf. But Judy Kaye is the soprano directors turn to when they want big musical-comedy talent minus the diva-tude. This Phoenix native, who resides in Guttenberg, N.J., and commutes to New York via public transportation, may well be one of the least pretentious Broadway stars around.

And the most versatile. Kaye, who turns 58 this week, has built a reputation on her chameleonic ability to transform her voice. She's done it all -- Broadway, off-Broadway, cabaret, classical music, jukebox musicals, variety shows, the blues and the occasional dramatic play. Kaye has performed both Puccini (at the Santa Fe Opera in 1990) and ABBA (in the original New York cast of "Mamma Mia!").

"You seldom hear a voice that's classically trained sound the way she does on a Broadway stage," says actor Donald Corren, who co-stars in "Souvenir" as Jenkins' exasperated accompanist.

Critics like to compare Kaye to Ethel Merman, and it's easy to see why. The actress possesses that same can-do-it-all charisma and comic timing. She has a similarly brassy timbre that lends itself to playing feisty, iron-willed women like Mama Rose in "Gypsy" and Annie Oakley in "Annie Get Your Gun," roles that Kaye ranks among her career favorites -- and that Merman originated.

Kaye combines a character actor's eccentricity with the vocal horsepower of a leading lady. In 1988, she won a Tony Award as the vamping diva Carlotta in "The Phantom of the Opera." The part was a broad slice of comic relief, but it required Kaye to stick a high E-natural eight times a week for a year.

"Judy really understands how to play comedy," says Marc Kudisch, who starred with Kaye last season in a Reprise revival of "Zorba" at the UCLA Freud Playhouse. "When she's playing humorous, there's humility there. And when she's being strong, there's vulnerability."

It was at UCLA where Kaye began her career, studying opera and comedy theater. In 1968, she landed her first major role as Lucy Van Pelt in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" at the Ivar Theater in Hollywood.

"We were the toast of L.A.!" Kaye recalls. After that was a stint in "Godspell," a club act at the Backlot Theatre in West Hollywood, and dinner theater in Culver City. "I even did a revue in a post office. I worked wherever they would have me. I still do!"

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