I can think of no Broadway performer who more exemplifies the titular stone in the Feinstein’s/54 Below “Diamond Series” than Kelli O’Hara. With her sterling voice and sparkling personality, O’Hara shines in whatever she’s in. Whether she’s delivering comedy or drama, whether she’s playing a diva or a farm wife, O’Hara has an undeniable, once-in-a-lifetime presence that has catapulted her to the top of her craft. It’s fitting that she has now claimed her spot as a crown jewel in 54 Below’s new series.
O’Hara knows her instrument. Her set list is so specifically attuned to her talents. Each song sits exactly in the pocket of her voice and, though they vary–sometimes wildly–in style, they all end up with her indelible stamp. Who would expect her to take the stage with “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday”, a song originally performed by Gonzo in The Muppet Movie? I watched Gonzo’s speak-sing rendition on YouTube the next morning and nothing about it immediately jumped out as a “Kelli O’Hara song.” Yet, the simple truth of the lyric, the need to return to a place where one belongs, perfectly encapsulates an actor returning to the stage after the coronavirus shutdown.
It’s not just Gonzo, though. On paper, Kelli O’Hara singing John Legend seems a little ridiculous. But in context, her heartfelt interpretation of “All of Me” brings out new colors in a very familiar tune. O’Hara makes a slight, but powerful shift in the lyric, changing “I give you all of me / and you give me all of you” to “I give you all of me / if you give me all of you.” It adds a new conditional dynamic to what the song is saying about relationships–they’re a balance, they require equal footing. O’Hara and her musical director Dan Lipton pair this song with the Irving Berlin standard of the same name, seamlessly blending the two songs together.
Truly out of left field, but entirely welcome, is a pair of songs from Bo Burnham’s Inside that O’Hara sings late in the show. She talks about her complicated feelings about social media (she joined Instagram and Twitter for “business reasons,”) and sings “Welcome to the Internet” about all the tantalizing and destructive things you can find on the web. The show hits a transcendent high, though, when O’Hara sings Burnham’s “White Woman’s Instagram” while projecting screenshots from her own profile. O’Hara is clearly having a blast, especially with the second song. She is not afraid to be goofy and to make fun of herself. It’s delightful to see that side of her, when she’s so often playing buttoned-up, serious women.
…which she also addresses in the show. She sings “Not Funny,” a song about how the soprano never gets the laughs. Originally written for the late Rebecca Luker, O’Hara sang this song at Luker’s memorial after the singer lost her battle with ALS last year. Though this kind of vocal-part-humor song is sometimes overdone and loses its jab (I’m looking at you, “Alto’s Lament”), O’Hara manages to keep “Not Funny” funny, finding different beats and readings from Luker’s version. It’s a touching tribute to her friend without being overly sentimental.
The night I attended, O’Hara was joined by several special guests. Ruthie Ann Miles, who starred with O’Hara in The King and I, joined her for a new duet arrangement of David Yazbek’s “Answer Me” from The Band’s Visit. Both singers were deeply engaged, bringing out the yearning in Yazbeck’s melody. O’Hara’s husband, Greg Naughton, and his father, James Naughton, joined her for a sweet a’cappella, unamplified version of James Taylor’s “That Lonesome Road.”
Jason Robert Brown accompanied her on “To Build a Home” from his musical The Bridges of Madison County. “Home” depicts a woman who travels from Napoli, Italy to Winterset, Iowa and O’Hara and Brown carry us with her at every leg of the journey with shifting musical textures and vocal color. Brown returned to the piano at the end of the show for the Bridges finale, “Always Better.” In the show, that song ends with the memory of her lost love returning to her and, in an unannounced surprise, Steven Pasquale, her co-star from the Broadway production, appeared in the audience and joined her on stage. They then sang the emotionally shattering duet “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles” and brought down the house.
Aside from the Bridges reunion, the highlight of the set was getting to hear a debut song by Adam Guettel from Days of Wine and Roses, a new show O’Hara will star in with Brian d’Arcy James. “There Go I” recalls Guettel’s previous work in its intricate piano accompaniment and its soaring vocal lines that allow O’Hara to demonstrate her phenomenal gift. It was exciting to hear a new song from the composer whose next New York outing is highly anticipated.
Kelli O’Hara’s show could not have been a better launchpad for Feinstein’s/54 Below’s new series. Designed as an all-inclusive experience, the Diamond Series tickets include the performance, a welcome drink, a three-course meal, tax, and gratuity. It lends the evening an extra level of sophistication that is then matched by O’Hara’s impeccable set.
Even the songs I don’t have space to mention were standouts on their own and it was such a joy to once more be in the orbit of O’Hara’s talent. She delivered some memorable performances on Zoom during the theatrical shutdown, but to be in the room with her again was almost too good to be true. She showed us, throughout the night, that she is a singular talent. I was already a mega-fan before this performance, but it’s a testament to her abilities that she is constantly expanding what we know she can do. She is a performer who has found what works for her, but never stops looking for more things that will also work for her. That’s exciting. I’m always willing to trust where she takes me and I’ve never been disappointed.