The Saturday List: The Kelli O’Hara Countdown!

Kelli O'Hara in THE KING AND I (with Ken Watanabe), THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA and SOUTH PACIFIC (with Paulo Szot)
Kelli O’Hara in The King and I (with Ken Watanabe), The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific (with Paulo Szot)

Today is Broadway darling Kelli O’Hara’s birthday. To celebrate we’re counting down five of her greatest stage appearances. Of course, O’Hara’s repertoire extends far beyond these five musicals – she’s also appeared in Follies, Kiss Me, Kate and more – and indeed beyond the reaches of the genre, with appearances in pieces like The Merry Widow and The Magic Flute.

5. The Bridges of Madison County

Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown’s adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County is a show that has a great deal to admire. At the top of that list is O’Hara’s performance as Francesca, showing a side of her that reveals her versatility as an actor. What she was able to preserve of her performance on the cast recording is hypnotically beautiful.

4. The Pajama Game

If there is one show that proves that O’Hara can cut loose and have a blast on stage, it is George Abbott, Richard Bissell, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s The Pajama Game. While the show certainly reflects the context of workers’ and women’s rights as they were in the 1950s, this show’s infectious spirit still lets it land today. O’ Hara’s work in this show is pure joy. Take a listen to her rendition of “There Once Was a Man” (an uncredited Frank Loesser addition to the score) if you need any evidence of the fact!

3. The King and I

There is only so much that can be done with The King and I today without rebuilding completely. Part of the problem is that it’s told from a white colonial viewpoint like the title’s “I,” but presented as though it’s an objective reading of this chapter from history. That said, what O’Hara does as Mrs Anna is magical, delivering a radiant rendition of the classic score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. How fortunate audiences across the world were to be able to view a recording of this production on the big screen.

2. The Light in the Piazza

The Light in the Piazza is pure melodrama, the kind that is based on a big secret, from start to finish. It is almost surprising that there was no breakthrough musical adaptation until Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s retelling of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella in the first decade of this century. O’Hara makes the most of Guettel’s lush and layered legit score, which is as delightful as it is dramatic.

1. South Pacific

Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, only South Pacific resonates with a similar resonance in terms of its socio-political commentary today as it did in its original run. With Joshua Logan on board when it came to the book, the show tackles learned racial prejudice with observations about how racism is perpetuated that are still shockingly relevant today. O’Hara ramps up the conflict in her Nellie Forbush, offering a template for how the role is universally approached today – a white woman who at first doesn’t realise there’s work to do, but who is woken up by her experiences in World War II. Although we leave her as she begins to act on what she’s learned, O’Hara’s overthinking ingenue gives us a hint at what needs to happen after her reconciliation with Emile as the final curtain falls.

What’s your favourite performance by Kelli O’Hara? Sound off in the comments block below!

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