This past Friday, on October 14th, at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge, CA, Tony Award-winner Kelli O’Hara did something extraordinary. She not only performed a remarkable solo concert, but courageously poured her heart out to an audience that witnessed a moving autobiographical story of a woman from Oklahoma who got to achieve her Broadway dreams in New York City.
The roughly 90-minute concert, which featured O’Hara on vocals, Music Director Dan Lipton on the piano, Gene Lewin on the drums, and Peter Donovan on the bass, was just as much a musical masterpiece as it was an intimate revelation about O’Hara. Each song and spoken word highlighted the trajectory of her life, and especially her selfhood and strong family roots – which have continued to grow bountifully since she took flight on her professional journey beginning with her first Broadway show, Jekyll & Hyde.
Being a country girl at heart, but also proud to call New York her home, O’Hara was compellingly genuine in how she spoke about growing up with, among other muses, the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Frank Sinatra. She performed many such songs at the California State University, Northridge campus with a vocal flair, in large part due to her operatic training at Oklahoma City University.
We learned that while Sinatra’s lyrics remind O’Hara of New York’s unflaggingly brilliant vivacity, songs like “A Wonderful Guy” (South Pacific), and “To Build a Home” (The Bridges of Madison County) reveal the rationale for O’Hara’s role choices over the years, including the fact that she could have had a fulfilling farm life if she chose to. Instead, she set her sights on the Big Apple because her family, and the people before her, labored and built a foundation on which she could rely on when she ventured into uncharted waters. At one point, when O’Hara lamented about her great aunt whose health was failing in Oklahoma, we were offered a lens into an individual who hasn’t forgotten where she came from.
For example, despite her incredible drive to attain her starry goals, many of which have curiously happened during her lunch breaks (i.e., such as persuading who she would later discover was esteemed composer Marvin Hamlisch for a last-minute Sweet Smell of Success audition that landed her the role of Susan), she has remembered to not get too caught up in herself lest she lose sight of what should always take precedence over everything else – her loved ones.
Underscoring this insight of O’Hara’s were the following songs that she sung – Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George and one of her husband’s (Greg Naughton) original pieces, “The Sun Went Out.” In the latter’s lyrics, specifically with “Did you notice that the sun just slipped away? / I tried to reach you, but the moon got in my way,” we are warned of how easy it is to lose track of time, and the extent to which we can become so wrapped up in an endeavor that we become blind to our surroundings.
Undoubtedly, O’Hara has made sure to never take for granted her family, which provides her with meaning, and a will to understand and appreciate her purpose and destiny. The beloved in her life have inspired her to write and perform songs like “Here Now” and “I Love You the World,” the first of which commemorates her grandfather and the second of which pays homage to an affectionate expression that has been passed down to her two children. Certainly, O’Hara sang her songs flawlessly, demonstrating that her pursuance of self-expression is an extension of her established heritage.
Yet, amid the several crowd-pleasers connected in some form to her musical-theatre past, including the title song from The Light in the Piazza; and “I Have Dreamed” from the The King and I, which earned her the Tony Award for Best Actress in 2015, it was a rollicking number called “They Don’t Let You in the Opera (If You’re a Country Star)” by her stage cohort Dan Lipton (and David Rossmer) that captured O’Hara’s unique essence the most. Her comedic prowess, jaw-dropping vocal range, and full-fledged charm were all on display during a whimsical song about a country singer who dreams of operatic vibrato and vindication even if it means hysterically squealing out an aria while giving birth during a performance.
More importantly, as uproariously awe-striking as it was to experience O’Hara’s execution of the song, it was the exceptionally true-to-life lyrics that seemed most poignant. Ultimately, O’Hara can speak to being “set on both Memphis and The Met,” or in her case Oklahoma and Broadway, because she has lived it and successfully reconciled the two on her own terms.
For more information about Kelli O’Hara’s solo concerts, including her upcoming debut at Carnegie Hall on October 29th, visit kelliohara.com
For information about upcoming events at the Valley Performing Arts Center, visit valleyperformingartscenter.org