In the past two Broadway seasons, Kelli O’Hara has stepped away from the ingenue roles that made her a Broadway stalwart in musicals as varied as “Follies,” “Sweet Smell of Success” and “The Light in the Piazza.”
With her more recent Tony-nominated portrayals in “Pajama Game” and now the much-acclaimed “South Pacific,” she smashes the fresh-faced girl mold. While Mary Martin in the original 1949 production and Mitzi Gaynor in the 1957 movie may have played Nurse Nelli Forbush as a wide-eyed innocent, O’Hara takes an entirely different approach to “South Pacific’s” femme lead, who harbors racist doubts about her French lover — he’s got two biracial kids!
“There’s spunk in her,” O’Hara says of her very grown-up Nelli. “There’s a war on, but she’s not going to break. She is stubborn.”
Babe in “Pajama Game” is even more experienced, at least as O’Hara played her: “Babe’s a union leader, and she has certainly been with men before.” Most definitely, O’Hara and her “Pajama Game” leading man, Harry Connick Jr., gave new significance to the show’s hit tune “Steam Heat.” Ditto she and Paulo Szot in “South Pacific.”
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Come to think of it, O’Hara also created an overload of sexual chemistry when she deflowered Matthew Morrison in “The Light in the Piazza,” which was the last time, in 2005, that she played a true innocent onstage. “Clara in ‘Piazza’ was an ingenue with sharp turns,” the actress says, referring to the nearly naked act-one finale that left conservative Lincoln Center audiences gasping.
Despite her more recent acclaim, O’Hara looks back at Clara as a highlight in a Broadway career that has seen her in six major productions in as many seasons. ” ‘Piazza’ is where people noticed me,” she notes, “I could take it and make it my own.”
At this year’s Tony Awards, it was not lost on the Shubert Alley pundits that O’Hara and Patti LuPone were essaying what were arguably Mary Martin and Ethel Merman’s greatest roles, in “South Pacific” and “Gypsy,” respectively. But O’Hara doesn’t even flirt with the comparison. “I don’t think Patti and I are like Mary Martin and Ethel Merman,” she observes. “We’re just using the same material.”
Role model: “Laura Linney. She does great artistic work without always being in the limelight.”
What I’m reading now: “Widow for One Year,” by John Irving
If not Hillary, then who?: “Barack Obama. Even before she dropped out, I was onboard.”
Most important issue facing Americans in this election year: “As much as I want to say health care and the economy, we really need to figure out this war.”
Fave leisure activity: “Cooking.”
Career mantra: “Career is not everything.”