Cadogan Hall, London
The most expensive theatre ticket I ever bought was a same-day hotel concierge acquisition to see Kelli O’Hara in South Pacific at Lincoln Center in New York, in 2008. To compound the felony, I was staying in the Trump International hotel across the street.
If I’m brutally honest, I’d probably gone primarily to see the pre-Glee Matthew Morrison take his shirt off as Joe Cable, but the freshness and clarity O’Hara brought to the part of Nellie Forbush redefined that musical for me, and blew me away.
It’s why I’ve followed her assiduously ever since, culminating in four visits to The King and I at the Palladium where her vocals were, if anything, even more perfected. She is an operatically trained – although not graduated as she freely points out – soprano and the strength of that training means there’s no ‘break’ between her chest and head voice and she can bring forth long, sustained musical theatre lines that go from quiet to crescendo with no loss of power.
The only other person on the London musical stage I can think of who can do it is Kim Criswell, another American. I’d love to hear a sing-off between them of something like ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ from Anything Goes.
They’re both from Dixie. Criswell comes from Chattanooga and O’Hara delights audiences with tales of growing up on the family farm in Oklahoma – and something she didn’t mention in the show is that she had the same singing teacher as Kristin Chenoweth at the Bass School of Music in Oklahoma University.
The American leading ladies London seems to take to its heart seem to be statuesque belters like Chenoweth, or Patti LuPone, or Bette Midler, but O’Hara is taller, and slender and has more variety in her voice than any of them.
The first half of her Cadogan Hall set was all tremendously-delivered musical theatre standards, although she decorated them with vocal flourishes, and conversational pauses which differentiated them from how she’d have sung ‘straight’ within the show: I was especially pleased to hear ‘What More Do I Need’ from Sondheim’s Saturday Night and Susan’s song from The Sweet Smell of Success (and the story of her impatiently clicking her fingers at the audition pianist to speed up, without knowing it was Marvin Hamlisch) as well as ‘To Build a Home’ which Jason Robert Brown wrote distinctly for her operatic voice, in contrast to the plucked country music in the rest of The Bridges of Madison County.
She ‘loves being in London’ – like you ever met an American actor who didn’t – but her fondness for the city depends on being able to walk streets ‘that don’t have guns’ and on our history, naturally, but also our respect for art. If you’ve a day still in hand, Kelli, catch the Anthony Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy, it’ll blow you away.
After the ‘interval’ (quite correct, it’s not ‘intermission’) she opened up more about her home and family life which are refreshingly stable and untheatrical despite the fact her husband Greg Naughton is a bandsman and composer for ‘a sort of Crosby, Stills and Nash type group’ called The Sweet Remains. She might be from farm stock but didn’t mention she married into a theatrical family, Greg’s dad is James Naughton who won a Tony as Billy Flynn in the first Broadway revival of Chicago.
So she sings something he wrote, and something she wrote herself and while they’re sweet songs you can feel the audience itching to get back to Rodgers and Hammerstein. The seven-and-a-half-minute semi-autobiographical ‘They Don’t Let You in the Opera if You’re a Country Star’ penned by her collaborative musical director Dan Lipton brought the house down, and she closed with beautiful versions of ‘Make Someone Happy’ from Do-Re-Mi and a very on-point as Julie Andrews ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’.
And then she brought me near tears by singing ‘La Vie en Rose’. Which I’ve also sung, on that same stage.
Some enchanted evening, wasn’t it ?