Kelli O’Hara, appropriately enough, opened her show Saturday at the Lied Center for Performing Arts with a song from “The King and I.”
But it wasn’t one of the numbers she sang in her Tony Award-winning performance as Anna. Rather, it was “I Have Dreamed,” setting the tone for a show in which she told her personal story by weaving together songs from Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Marvin Hamlisch and Cole Porter.
Along the way, she told stories about her life and career, like why she recorded “All The Way,” a song associated with Frank Sinatra, at the urging of Harry Connick Jr., with whom she starred in “The Pajama Game.”
That song touched off a string of “man songs,” with O’Hara doing her version of songs popularized by or sung in musicals by men, which she was encouraged to do by the widow of Sammy Kahn, the writer of “All The Way.”
Along the way, she visited musicals in which she’s performed, including “South Pacific,” “Kiss Me Kate,” which provided one of the “soprano songs” that showed off her natural voice, and the title song of “The Light in the Piazza,” which elicited a “wow” from a guy seated a couple rows behind me.
That exclamation could have come after nearly every song. O’Hara is simply a stunning singer, classically trained with a pure, precise, vibrato intensive soprano who delivers each lyric, with perfect power and emotion.
The most revealing portion of the performance came when she sang “The Sun Went Out,” written by her husband, Greg Naughton of the folk-rock band The Sweet Remains, and followed that with “Here Now,” a song she wrote about her grandfather.
The pairing couldn’t have been more personal. But it also showed that O’Hara can sing anything and very easily could have been a country star, if she’d just dial a little more twang into her voice.
She did just that at the end of the 90-minute performance, donning a beat-up cowboy hat to do a number she co-wrote about a Southern country singer who moves to New York to sing opera, is rejected and winds up having a baby in the mezzanine during an opera, giving her own performance.
Not only was it hilarious, giving her a chance to do a little “acting,” the song showed off the chops that she’s brought to the Metropolitan Opera, a real farm girl, albeit from Oklahoma, singing opera in the big city.
The most unexpected moment of the night came when a screen was lowered behind O’Hara and her pianist/musical director Dan Lipton before she began “To Build a Home,” a song from the musical “Bridges of Madison County” that was written for her.
Midway through, the images of a dozen University of Nebraska-Lincoln vocal music students appeared on the screen, singing a chorus along with O’Hara, an innovative Lied Center idea that allowed her to do the song in its entirety and demonstrated the initiative the Lied has shown in presenting a season during the pandemic.
O’Hara, who said she was overwhelmed by the ovation that came from the socially distanced audience after the first two numbers and later quipped that she hadn’t walked in high heels in months, was clearly thrilled to be singing for an audience again — and finally making the Lincoln date that was postponed three times.
Likewise, the audience was thrilled by the Broadway star’s performance.
Man, can she sing.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @kentwolgamott