Review: Tony Winner Kelli O'Hara Performs Exquisite Concert at Irvine Barclay

Armed with undeniable talents as a musical theater powerhouse, O’Hara returns to wow another OC audience with beautifully-rendered showtunes and stories

By: Oct. 02, 2023
Review: Tony Winner Kelli O'Hara Performs Exquisite Concert at Irvine Barclay

For many years---and for many shows---Tony Award-winning Broadway star Kelli O'Hara has established herself as true theater royalty, one of a handful of go-to leading ladies that have amassed a rabid, fanatic following that can elicit frequent deafening kudos from audiences and critics alike. Thanks to her undeniable talents as a musical theater powerhouse, punctuated by heartfelt acting chops and her beautiful, legit opera-tinged soprano voice, O'Hara has landed some very coveted roles throughout her career, seven (yep, seven) of which earned her Tony Award nominations alongside plenty of positive notices along the way.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, for many theatergoers, O'Hara first gained real prominence in her Tony-nominated ingénue turn as Clara in Adam Guettel's THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, a role that jumpstarted a streak of enviable, high-profile parts in some of the 21st Century's must-see revivals that included THE PAJAMA GAME (opposite Harry Connick Jr.), SOUTH PACIFIC, THE KING AND I (the role that finally earned her a Tony win), and KISS ME KATE. Sandwiched between these shows are a couple of originals, a cheery Gershwin jukebox musical (NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT) and Jason Robert Brown's beautiful, highly underrated THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY.

With each role, O'Hara displays a regal classiness and relatable vulnerability that makes her performances so utterly mesmerizing. Heck, I was even excited to see her in a non-singing role on Julian Fellowes' HBO series The Gilded Age, which returns for a highly-anticipated second season later this month.

And for those lucky enough to snag a ticket, audiences will soon see her again back on the Great White Way starring opposite Brian D'Arcy James in THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, a new musical stage adaptation of the 1962 film with music by Adam Guettel and a book by Craig Lucas, which had its out-of-town tryout at the Atlantic Theater Company earlier this year and will transfer to Broadway this January for a limited run at Studio 54---which, if her trend continues, will usher in her eighth Tony nod.

So understandably, learning that she'll be opening the Irvine Barclay Theater's newly christened Broadway-leaning cabaret season was exciting news.

Review: Tony Winner Kelli O'Hara Performs Exquisite Concert at Irvine Barclay Seeing and hearing her in this kind of intimate, one-woman concert setting---especially outside of Broadway---is such a special treat, particularly for those of us who've never actually seen her perform live and in-person on a New York stage, but only through her enchanting TV appearances on the Tony Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors, or perhaps in her many tear-jerking performances shown on PBS broadcasts (do yourself a favor and seek out the staged concert version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic CAROUSEL for some pure awesomeness).

Locally, O'Hara's last formal concert appearance in Orange County was back in 2010 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts' own cabaret series that season. And much like that intimate performance, she was once again in fine vocal form during her one-night-only concert at the Barclay, wowing the audience with her engaging mix of classic show tunes and effervescent commentary.

She was joined on stage by her musical director and principal pianist Dan Lipton along with local So Cal musicians Kevin Axt on bass and Mark Converse on drums.

Dressed in a gorgeous patterned monochrome dress, O'Hara was greeted with loud cheers as she opened with a pair of revised Rodgers and Hammerstein classics from two Lincoln Center revivals that Bartlett Sher directed her in: a Bossa-Nova-flavored "I Have Dreamed" from THE KING AND I followed by "Cock-eyed Optimist" from SOUTH PACIFIC.

Though glad to be in So. Cal. for the moment away from the "monsoon happening out East," O'Hara still served a bit of love for New York via Sondheim's "What More Do I Need?" (from the musical SATURDAY NIGHT), followed by cheerful audience sing-along with "Getting To Know You" from THE KING AND I (and, ahem, she seemed to really enjoy the vocals coming from our side of the theater, just sayin').

O'Hara then regaled the audience with a cute story of how, while in the cast of the 2001 revival of Sondheim's FOLLIES, she "crashed" the auditions for the upcoming 2002 stage musical adaptation of the 1957 film SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. During the audition, she grew impatient and critical of the substitute pianist that came in, not knowing that it was in fact the show's composer himself Marvin Hamlisch! Despite the  mini faux-pas, she still got the job---which prompted a touching performance of "That's How I Say Goodbye," a "cut" song that didn't survive past the show's Chicago out-of-town tryout. In a tribute to her mentors, she dedicated the song to her former voice teachers Florence Birdwell and Dr. Stephen Coker, who currently teaches locally at my own alma mater, Chapman University.

From there, O'Hara swooned and gushed over composer Adam Guettel---the grandson of Richard Rodgers---who is the composer and lyricist for THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, the 2005 Lincoln Center production helmed by Sher that would earn O'Hara her first Tony nomination. She does an exquisite job with the title song, which she followed up with an equally lovely "There Go I," a song from Guettel's next musical that O'Hara will star in this coming January.

Next, O'Hara performed a bit more jazz swing with "Just In Time" which segued into a torch-song-y version of Frank Sinatra's "All The Way," a suggestion that came via her PAJAMA GAME revival co-star Harry Connick Jr. which made her nervous to take on at first. The song became a part of a section in her concert that she described as the "My Man" set, which also included a buoyant "He Loves Me" (from SHE LOVES ME) and just an exquisite, piercing version of "This Nearly Was Mine" (from SOUTH PACIFIC). That latter one finally got me to wipe a few tears.

In a successful bid to show us her range with genres (which frankly was unnecessary since she can no doubt sing everything well), O'Hara then sang a country-ish rock ditty "The Sun Went Out" written by her husband Greg Naughton which is the first track off of her debut solo album Wonder in the World which was arranged and orchestrated by Connick Jr.

She, of course, effortlessly switched back to musical theater goodness, this time via "To Build A Home," a beautiful, narrative-driven song she sang on Broadway as Francesca in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time, the Jason Robert Brown-penned song showcases exactly why O'Hara is a master class in her craft.

Review: Tony Winner Kelli O'Hara Performs Exquisite Concert at Irvine Barclay After the seriousness of the previous song, O'Hara injected a bit of welcome levity to her concert by feigning light upset over being forever a Broadway soprano, which according to her hilarious song "Not Funny," means she's always relegated to serious moments in the show, never getting the laugh or never able to "steal" a show. Kind of like her own "Soprano's Lament," she shared this annoyance alongside her personal heroes and fellow serious sopranos---the late Marin Mazzie and Rebecca Luker---to whom she affectionately dedicated the song. Of course, the song also matter-of-factly managed to demonstrate her undeniable prowess (and sheer mastery) of super high notes that literally floated to the stratosphere. So, perhaps, it's not such a bad deal after all.

O'Hara closes out her show with her own touching take on "Make Someone Happy," a classic tune from the musical DO RE MI written by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jule Styne--that is featured as the final track on her debut album and also happens to summarize much of her philosophy as an artist.

"Singing for me is a purpose," O'Hara declared as she winds down the show, using this mantra as her motivation to perform. It was a fitting warm embrace that audience craved to close out the evening.

After loud cheers and a long standing ovation, O'Hara came back out to sing an encore of "I Could Have Dance All Night" from MY FAIR LADY which, again, served as a last reminder of her effortless knack for high notes.

This only my second time seeing O'Hara live in concert and like the first time, she never disappointed. Such beauty, talent and accolades could not have happened to a nicer gal.

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter X / Instagram / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos courtesy of Irvine Barclay Theatre.


Up next in Irvine Barclay Theatre's 2023-2024 Broadway/Cabaret Concert Series is Linda Eder: Christmas Stays the Same (December 15, 2023); Lucie Arnaz: I Got The Job! - Songs from My Musical Past (January 27, 2024); Charl Brown's Smokey & Me: A Celebration of Smokey Robinson (January 28, 2024); and Sutton Foster (April 12, 2024). Tickets can be purchased online at Click Here, by phone at 949-854-4646 or in person at the box office located at 4242 Campus Drive in Irvine, on the campus of UC Irvine.

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