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On a Bright Cloud of Music Shall We Fly

Kelli O’Hara Makes Her Provincetown Debut

by Steve Desroches

Top Image: Photo: Emilio Madrid

It’s hard to think of a more iconic scene in American musical theater than “Shall We Dance?” with its rousing choreography and music in the King and I. When the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical opened on Broadway in 1951, starring Yul Brenner and Gertrude Lawrence, the show was an immediate hit and the dance number an instant classic as Anna and the King of Siam bridge their cultural differences, and romantic tensions, with a wild polka swinging around the stage. Adding to the wonderful spectacle, of course, is Anna’s enormous ball gown, which increases the grand pageantry of it all. Made even more popular by the 1956 film adaptation featuring Brenner and Deborah Kerr, the “Shall We Dance?” scene clearly has inspired many to recreate the sweeping dance movements with blankets or table cloths fashioned as bustling Victorian garb as fans hop and swoosh around their living rooms. It was clear that enthusiasm for the scene hadn’t diminished come 2015 when Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe reprised the roles in the Broadway revival. When they began to dance the audiences burst into applause nightly. It must have been so much fun!

Photo: Emilio Madrid

“No, no my friend,” laughs O’Hara. “When you’re up there and the lights are glaring, it’s frightening. We worked really hard. I think for everyone who’s done the roles it’s really hard. Ken and I fell down one night. If you can find it, get it right, it’s magic. It looks like a dream. There was one night where we were flying around the stage and I felt it, it felt like the real thing. You get to that place where it feels magical. But oh my God, it’s terrifying!”

It wasn’t just the dancing that was magical as the production won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, and O’Hara herself won for her performance before heading to London to do the role in the West End, securing her a spot as one of musical theater’s top actors. It also lead her to become a top concert performer internationally. Taking a break from rehearsals for an upcoming concert in San Diego, O’Hara sighs with delight that she’ll soon be making her Provincetown debut at Town Hall with Seth Rudetsky as host and pianist. Initially booked to come in 2020, O’Hara had been trying to work it into her busy schedule for several years prior, as she was charmed by the glowing accounts her Broadway colleagues shared about the town and its audiences. As soon as the concert was announced O’Hara heard from about 70 of her friends who said they’d be coming to Provincetown to see her take to the stage in the town’s largest venue—though, no, they won’t be recreating the dance between the King and Anna.

Photo: Emilio Madrid

Every success story is different and for O’Hara hers begins in her hometown of Elk City, Oklahoma. While some may think that’s an unusual place for a Broadway star to come out of, in actuality the Sooner State, and more specifically Oklahoma City, continues to be one of the most prodigious locales for producing musical theater and opera talent. Many think the best and brightest stars come out of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but Oklahoma City, in large  part because of Oklahoma City University, is increasingly regarded as one of the top cities in the country for musical theater talent. An alumna of Oklahoma City University graduating with the Class of 1998, O’Hara expresses gratitude for her education there, where she studied under the late, great Florence Birdwell, the highly regarded faculty member who for over six decades taught students like O’Hara and other alumni like Kristen Chenoweth, Lara Teeter, and helped Susan Powell win the 1981 Miss America Pageant and go on to a celebrated opera career. All the glitz and glamour of pageants and theater in the middle of the country adds pizzazz, but O’Hara says the university inspires not just its students, but the whole region in a love and appreciation for the arts.

“I’m so proud to have gone there,” says O’Hara. “It was very much about the craft. It wasn’t about the business. If you were at NYU you could be distracted by critics reviewing student work or the audition process. At OCU I just focused on the work, on learning skills. Just four years of being able to work on my craft. I’m so grateful I could just work on that.”

Photo: Emilio Madrid

As one of the most accomplished and illustrious graduates of the school, O’Hara, who in total has seven Tony Award nominations, continues to rise to new heights and accomplishments performing on the most prestigious stages around the world. O’Hara’s masterful talents are perhaps most apparent in her ability to take an iconic role in a classic musical and make it her own. With leads in revivals of South Pacific, Kiss Me, Kate, The Pajama Game, and Follies, O’Hara distinguished herself as a respected interpreter of some of the best roles  in the history of Broadway. She also created roles making them instant classics, like her performance in the first Broadway run of The Light in the Piazza, and is working with its creators now in a developing a new “avant garde” musical production of the Days of Wine and Roses. But the challenge of creating a role that has been done by some of the brightest stars of yesteryear is a thrill.

“That’s a really important question, when it’s been done before what are you going to bring to it,” says O’Hara. “I go to the source material, to the book and the score. The only reason to do it again is to bring something different to it. And to bring myself into that. What can I do that is different? I’m not saying do it better, but different. Say something different. That’s what is really exciting about a revival, the chance to put your own vision to it. To create something new.”

Kelli O’Hara performs at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St. on Sunday, August 15 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets ($50-$150) are available at the Art House box office, 214 Commercial St. and online at For more information call 508.487.9222.

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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