Sunday, June 5, 2011

Kelli O'Hara, Always Enchanting

Three-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara launched her new solo CD, Always, Friday night at Manhattan's Town Hall with a 90-minute, intermission-less concert of nearly 20 songs from Broadway and the American Songbook, with a little taste of rock and roll thrown into the mix.

O’Hara has been one of my favorite Broadway performers since I first noticed her onstage, in Sweet Smell of Success in 2002. In the years that followed she continued to charm me in The Light in the Piazza, Pajama Game and South Pacific. I even ventured out in blizzard in January just to see her in Knickerbocker Holiday.

Looking festive in a blue, green and white print sarong dress with strappy high heeled sandals, her blond hair in a shoulder-length bob, she didn’t disappoint, at least not in a major way, in Friday’s concert.

I appreciated her creativity in song selection, choosing several of what she called “man songs,” numbers from shows or recordings that have traditionally been sung my men. Two of these in particular are ones I’ve always loved, “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George and “How Glory Goes” from Floyd Collins. It also was nice to hear her sing “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific, which she listened to “hundreds of times” when her costar, Paul Szot, sang it during the critically acclaimed run of the show at Lincoln Center in 2008.

Another highlight of the evening was when she was joined by her father-in-law, singer/actor James Naughton, and husband, singer/songwriter Greg Naughton, for a moving a cappella version of James Taylor’s “Lonesome Road.” Later Kelli and Greg shared the stage with Broadway performers Sherie Rene Scott, Gavin Creel and Julie Foldesi for a spirited “Carry On,” a Crosby, Stills and Nash song that took me back to my youth.

While I was drawn into all of the numbers O’Hara sang and the way she sang them, what I wanted more of was her. Her interaction with the audience consisted mostly of talking a bit about the songs. Even when some technical difficulties with the bass player kept her improvising conversation while a technician worked away onstage, she still steered clear of the intimacy that some personal stories would have given.

I wanted anecdotes about what she called her “schizophrenic musical biography,” more than just the mention in passing that she had grown up on a farm in Oklahoma singing country and gospel while listening to Frank and Ella at her grandparents’ house, before majoring in opera in college. I knew most of that but would have liked to see that life more fully. Did her parents and siblings sing and if so, did they sing together at home or church? What were some of her early singing experiences?

I also was left wondering what it was like to be part of a musical family now. She said Naughton gatherings often include singing and I wanted a window into that world, a story or two of how that happens -- is it spontaneous or do they plan these times together? I craved some snapshots of that talented family singing together.

But other than that, the evening was all I could have hoped for. When she sang she was the same enchanting singer who has always captivated me, and she was well served by her band -- musical director Dan Lipton on piano, Howard Joines on drums/percussion, Antoine Silverman on violin/fiddle, Mark Vanderpoel on upright bass and Matt Beck on acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin.

She sent us away with a shimmering “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which was appropriate because that’s exactly how I felt.

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