“Every song I will sing tonight will be about someone who helped me get here. Every note and every word will be shared in the spirit of gratitude…” leading lady Kelli O’Hara tells us, explaining her show title. The hall is packed to the rafters for the musical theater actress’s solo Carnegie debut. (This year also saw her Metropolitan Opera Debut.) In another era, enthusiastic fans would carry her on their shoulders.
Oklahoma born O’Hara is eminently likeable. When that glorious soprano soars from her fresh, pretty, Mid-Western face and petite figure, audiences feel connected. She seems like one of us, albeit with extraordinary vocal abilities. Patter is warm and sincere. The artist tells us about her start in the business and family members. Each musical selection has context.
To her mom, the dreamer, who listened to Frank Sinatra, she dedicates Vincent Youmans’ “Without a Song.” It’s an unusual arrangement, somewhat western, though vocally balladic. To her father, who taught her how to work, O’Hara dedicates “To Build a Home” which swells and swirls in heartfelt interpretation. (Jason Robert Brown from The Bridges of Madison County in which she costarred): …And blade of grass by blade of grass/And ear of corn by ear of corn/And bale of Hay by day by day/They build themselves a home…
“The Light in the Piazza” is imbued with the innocent character’s immense sense of wonder. (From the show of the same name by Adam Guettel in which she played Clara, “a role that changed my life.”) Apparently she and Victoria Clark sang the entire score to an ailing Betty Comden in her apartment, the kind of thing, O’Hara says, that can make the work wonderful.
Two of what the artist calls her “man songs,” i.e. numbers ordinarily performed by men, are “Finishing the Hat” which she comments is “no longer just a man’s problem” (Stephen Sondheim from Sunday in the Park with George) and “This Nearly Was Mine” (Rodgers and Hammerstein from South Pacific in which she played Nellie Forbush.)
The first arrives with new mindset in place. An overtaxed woman tries against odds to complete what she started in the face of endless demands. The understated version (with wonderful violin), eschews its usual pointillist arrangement in favor of quiet intensity. The second number, buoyed on piano eddies (until the bridge) begins swaying slightly with regret, then erupts into an uncontainable waltz.
When O’Hara got to New York 18 years ago, she had a temp job in the box office of Café Carlyle. Barbara Cook was playing. Her first performance on a Carnegie Hall stage was a Barbara Cook concert. “In this life you look for people who set examples…” Much to collective surprise, Ms. Cook is then wheeled out in her chair to receive admiration and affectionate thanks. O’Hara sits on the floor next to the icon, hot pink dress billowing around her.
Kristin Chenoweth, Kelli O’Hara
We’re also introduced to fellow Oklahoman, Kristin Chenoweth who, instead of feeling competitive, got O’Hara her first agent and voice teachers here. They sing – what else – a rousing “Oklahoma!” Both performers bounce, taking turns holding “that” note while the other bounds on. The audience spontaneously claps time. What is it in the water of Oklahoma…?
Selections for her attending children include a tandem “Smile” (Charles Chaplin) and George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” which don’t quite work together (for her son, an avid Beatles fan) and, by O’Hara herself, the charming “She Sings” written for her daughter Charlotte.
O’Hara tells us she couldn’t manage juggling work and family without appreciable help. Her husband, Greg Naughton, joins for one of his compositions “about not getting too crazy busy to share your world.” The country number arrives in easy harmony, fiddle-sounding violin and two-step rhythm. With bandmates Rich Price and Brian Chartrand, the four then perform his “Dance With Me,” a country tune with a sweet, comfy sound but alas, mostly unintelligible lyrics.” (The band is Sweet Remains.)
Brian Chartrand, James Naughton, Kelli O’Hara, Greg Naughton, Rich Price
Taking the atmosphere a step further, adding O’Hara’s father-in-law, actor James Naughton, the group sings an a capella “Lonesome Road” (James Taylor) with only an overhead microphone. A pristine rendition, it sounds like a hymn.
One of the unquestionable highpoints of the evening is the story/song “They Don’t Let You In The Opera (If You’re A Country Star)” by MD/Pianist Dan Lipton and David Rossmer: Now, I was born down in Georgia/But Georgia wasn’t good enough for me/I’d sing country songs for them, but/My heart sang La Bohème and it/Didn’t help we moved to Tennessee/Nashville’s not the place you sing/High C…Wearing a cowboy hat, delivering every lyric with just the right yee-haw inflection, segueing into serious opera, O’Hara shows us singing and acting chops with infectious panache.
There were two encores.
Photos by Chris Lee
Opening: Second Encore: “I’ll Get By (With a Little Help from My Friends)”
John Lennon/Paul McCartney
Kelli O’Hara- Never Go Solo
Dan Lipton- MD/Piano
The Stern Auditorium Carnegie Hall
October 29, 2016