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‘Souvenir’ spotlights off-key-but-lovable life

Tony Award-winning Broadway diva Judy Kaye isn’t one to hit a bad note.

She’s been featured in high-profile productions such as “Mamma Mia!,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Phantom of the Opera.” She’s also sung with orchestras worldwide and at the White House twice.

But in Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins” — opening at the Asolo Repertory Theatre 8 p.m. Friday — Kaye takes on the jovial, yet touching role of a real-life singer known for her faltering soprano.

From the moment Kaye read the script about the spirited tone-deaf singer, she knew the role was for her.

She just had to convince the casting director and everyone else.

“All I needed to do really was to prove to them I could sing badly enough for the role,” Kaye, who received a Tony Award nomination for the show, said with a laugh during a recent phone interview. “People have to know that this is not two hours of bad singing. It really isn’t. It’s just touches of it here or there to give the audience the understanding of what and whom we are dealing with.”

Though often off-key, Jenkins’s delusion of being an exceptional soprano drew crowds in real life, making her a cult phenomenon of her time.

“Souvenir” highlights Jenkins’ rise to fame and her budding friendship with accompanist Cosme McMoon.

The real Jenkins — whose signature look was dressing in a long gown and wearing a large pair of angel wings — sincerely believed she had the voice of an angel.

Crowds were mystified by her. They showed up for her annual concerts at Manhattan’s Ritz-Carlton. And at the height of her career she sold out Carnegie Hall within an hour, turning more than 2,000 people away, said cast member Donald Corren, who plays Cosme.

“She was a phenomenon,” he said. “What’s irresistible about her was her sincerity. There’s such a discrepancy between what we hear and what she’s purporting to do that we’re fascinated. But her spirit is just indomitable. We’d all like to be that.”

In “Souvenir,” Jenkins doesn’t set out to be a star. She just wants to perform her craft to anyone who will listen.

“She wanted to serve the music,” Corren said. “That’s what our play is about. She was not following fame, she was following art.”

Kaye was in high school when she discovered Jenkins. Someone played a recording of the “star,” telling Kaye that it was of “a wonderful new soprano” that she just had to hear.

When Kaye heard it, she was on the floor laughing, she said.

Corren also remembers hearing about Jenkins long before “Souvenir” came along.

He said Jenkins’ record — “The Glory (????) of the Human Voice” — may be one of the longest recordings still in print. It has been a favorite with singers, students, musicians and artists worldwide, he said.

Before he was cast in the Broadway production of “Souvenir,” Corren fell in love with the show during its off-Broadway run. What he enjoyed most was the friendship between Jenkins and Cosme.

“That’s what I think is at the heart of the piece,” said Corren. “It’s a funny piece. Of course there’s a lot of comedy in her delusional behavior. But it is the relationship that grows between these two unlikely friends — they become very, very significant and protective of each other.”

Corren said Cosme begins to admire the woman behind the bad music and the resilient spirit she possesses.

It’s a story both Corren and Kaye keep coming back to.

Though it will be Corren’s first time in the Sarasota area, it will be Kaye’s second visit with a show. Back in 1986, Kaye performed one of her breakout roles in the touring production of “On the Twentieth Century,” which was presented at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

“It should be fun returning to the scene of former crimes,” she said.

January Holmes, features writer, can be reached at 745-7057.

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