November 17, 2021

Stage, Screen Star Kelli O’Hara Makes Her McCarter Debut; Versatile Concert Features Classic and Contemporary Show Tunes

KELLI O’HARA: Stage and screen star Kelli O’Hara (above) performed November 13 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, marking her debut there. For the concert, which included a selection of show tunes and standards, the Tony Award winner was accompanied by a quartet of instrumentalists. (Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Stage and screen star Kelli O’Hara performed at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre this past Saturday night. The concert featured a selection of classic and contemporary show tunes, as well as a few stand-alone songs, that have had special significance for the Tony and Drama League Award winner.

Her stage credits include numerous musical theater roles on Broadway, as well as Metropolitan Opera performances in The Merry Widow and Cosi fan tutte. Screen credits include the web series The Accidental Wolf, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, and HBO’s upcoming The Gilded Age.

O’Hara made her McCarter debut with the November 13 concert. However, one of the musicians who accompanied her — percussionist Gene Lewin — is an alumnus of Princeton University and its Triangle Club.

Dan Lipton was the musical director and pianist. Guitarist Justin Goldner and bassist Alex Eckhardt completed the well-balanced quartet.

The first two selections were both from musicals by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. The opening number was “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I. For her performance as Anna Leonowens in the 2015 Broadway revival, O’Hara won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.

In the show, “I Have Dreamed” is a duet sung by characters other than Anna. This concept — O’Hara singing songs written for characters other than the one she portrayed — was a recurring theme of the concert. O’Hara let the beginning of the song be introspective, almost understated, giving the rendition room to crescendo — both in volume and intensity.

O’Hara’s character did sing “A Cockeyed Optimist” from South Pacific. In the show the up-tempo, defiantly joyful number is sung by U.S. Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, portrayed by O’Hara in the 2008 revival. O’Hara said that she stopped singing the song for a period of time, to avoid over-performing it, but pointedly added that she put it back in her repertoire in the past year.

The ballad “Without a Song” has music by Vincent Youmans, and lyrics by Billy Rose and Edward Eliscu. Published 1929, it was included in the musical Great Day.

“What More Do I Need?” yielded an abrupt change in mood. Written by Stephen Sondheim for the musical Saturday Night, the song is an energetic, wry ode to New York City.

O’Hara paused to recount some of her biography. Born and raised in Oklahoma, she attended Oklahoma City University (where she studied voice with Florence Birdwell, who had previously taught Kristin Chenoweth). After performing in the national tour and Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde, and the 2001 revival of Follies, O’Hara originated the role of Susan in Sweet Smell of Success (2002).

Sweet Smell of Success had music by Marvin Hamlisch (the late composer of A Chorus Line), lyrics by Craig Carnelia, and book by John Guare. O’Hara revealed that when she auditioned, the pianist had taken a lunch break, so Hamlisch accompanied O’Hara himself. Not recognizing the composer’s face, O’Hara brusquely asked him to play at a faster tempo.

This anecdote led to a wistful rendition of “That’s How I Say Goodbye,” a placid ballad that was cut from the show. Relatively short musical phrases gradually escalate to a middle section in which the phrases and melodic range expand.

In 2005 O’Hara starred as Clara in the Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza, having played another character (Franca) in tryouts. The show’s songs are by Adam Guettel (grandson of Richard Rodgers), with a book by Craig Lucas.

Sung by Clara, the impassioned,
melodically-soaring title song is tasked with believably leading Clara’s mother, Margaret, to set aside her deep concerns about Clara’s impending wedding. O’Hara makes the most of the poetic number which is by turns strophic and unpredictable, unassuming, and defiant.

At O’Hara’s suggestion Guettel and Lucas are collaborating on an adaptation of Days of Wine and Roses. From that in-progress musical O’Hara sang “There Go I.” It is the first number sung by Kristin (portrayed by Lee Remick in the 1962 film).

For “So in Love,” a passionate ballad written by Cole Porter for Kiss Me, Kate, O’Hara made exquisite use of vibrato in an almost operatic delivery, while filling each line of the lyrics with emotion. O’Hara starred in the dual roles of actor Lilli Vanessi and show-within-a-show character Katharine in the musical’s 2019 revival.

O’Hara paid tribute to two performers who recently have died: Marin Mazzie, who had starred in the previous revival (1999) of Kiss Me, Kate in 1999; and Rebecca Luker, whose credits include originating the role of Lily in The Secret Garden.

“Not Funny” is by Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid, and first sung by Luker and Sally Wilfert. The feisty novelty song gave O’Hara ample scope to highlight her comedic talents. It satirizes a perception that characters portrayed by sopranos are less amusing than those played by lower voices. What lets the music support the humor so effectively is that it abruptly leaps to a series of high notes after opening in a (more conversational) lower range.

Two selections explored a sub-theme of songs performed by male characters within a show. First was a jazzy rendition of the elated title song from She Loves Me (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick). The song appears on O’Hara’s 2011 album Always as “He Loves Me,” and gives the singer latitude for wordless, playful vocal exclamations. This was followed by an introspective ballad from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, “This Nearly Was Mine;” arranged by Lipton.

Next were two stand-alone songs from different eras. Written in 1931 by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons, “All of Me” was popularized by Frank Sinatra. This was followed by “The Sun Went Out,” a breezy song in a country idiom, in which Lipton sang with O’Hara. The music and lyrics are by Greg Naughton — O’Hara’s husband — a singer-songwriter and founding member of a band, the Sweet Remains.

In 2014 O’Hara originated the role of Francesca in the Broadway production of The Bridges of Madison County (whose songs are by Jason Robert Brown). O’Hara performed the show’s opening number, “To Build a Home,” a brisk waltz in which Francesca reflects on the farm life she has lived over the past 18 years. The accompaniment included some crisp drum ruffles by Lewin. O’Hara ended the song with her arms exuberantly outstretched.

The (nominal) finale was “Make Someone Happy” from the musical Do Re Mi. O’Hara let every line sound carefully deliberate, while caressing each musical phrase. Do Re Mi has music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. O’Hara shared a touching memory: Comden had wanted to see The Light in the Piazza but she was too ill (she died a year after that show opened). So O’Hara and a costar visited her in her apartment and performed the score.

After a standing ovation O’Hara came back onstage for an encore: “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady (lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe). It was a jubilant coda to an evening of versatile, heartfelt performances that demonstrated why O’Hara is a star.