Two for ‘the Park’

Special to The Times

ON the surface, blond, blue-eyed, clarion-voiced Kelli O’Hara would be no one’s description of a dark horse. Quite the opposite: With her apple cheeks and fine-boned physique, this 29-year-old native Oklahoman, who was nominated for a Tony in 2005 and 2006, seems an almost impossibly ideal incarnation of a scrubbed, polished all-American star -- a shoo-in for any leading role she might want to claim.

As director Bartlett Sher, who worked with her in 2005’s “The Light in the Piazza,” gushed: “The way she looks, the way she sings, even her name -- it’s enough to make you think that nobody on this Earth could be responsible.”

But perhaps divine visions are harder to place in our slouchy, knockabout age. O’Hara has heard one bit of backhanded praise often enough in her relatively brief career that she’s learned to take it as a compliment: “You’re not the first person I would think of ....” Less a comment on her rising star power than on her perceived type and range, it’s a phrase she heard when she was cast as Babe, the sassy union chief, in last year’s Broadway run of “The Pajama Game,” opposite Harry Connick Jr.


She heard it about her initial role in the pre-Broadway productions of “Piazza” -- not the part of the naive, brain-damaged Clara for which she would eventually garner a Tony nomination but the smaller, saltier part of Franca, a Gina Lollobrigida-esque Italian wife, which O’Hara relished as an against-type turn.

And she might expect to hear it again about her casting as Dot, the feisty muse and lover of Georges Seurat in “Sunday in the Park With George,” in a semi-staged Reprise! production at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. The role of Dot, after all, is indelibly associated with its originator, Bernadette Peters. With her corset and bustle, fuzzy auburn curls and scratchy alto voice, Peters stamped Dot as a lovably irascible thorn in the side of Mandy Patinkin’s unresponsive painter George.

O’Hara’s take on the role will necessarily be different, which is just what director Jason Alexander is looking for.

“Because she was created by Bernadette, the impression of Dot is that she starts the show as a grown woman in her mid-30s,” Alexander said. “I’m not sure that’s true. She might be 19 when the play starts. I think if you said, ‘Let’s have Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan play her,’ you wouldn’t be very far off.”

As the show progresses and Dot chooses a more attentive if less passionate partner, the baker Louis, her character deepens and matures -- until, in a final, spectral appearance, Dot is a virtual Earth mother bearing hard-learned life lessons. Alexander believes that O’Hara has the range to cover all those bases.

“What I know of Kelli is that, without being coy, she can play those adolescent qualities,” Alexander said. “And then later, when this steely, practical resolve comes through, she can do that too.”


Indeed, if the downside of playing many kinds of roles well is that you’re hard to place, the upside is an accumulating perception of range and depth.

“I’m liking these challenges, because they allow me to prove people wrong,” O’Hara said. “I guess there’s a part of me that’s like, ‘OK, so what does all this mean?’ But I just hope it means more and more and more, because if nobody can put me in a type, then I’ll be eligible for anything.”

Sher already thinks she’s reached that point. “She’s developed into the kind of actress -- the kind of star -- who is able to do anything.”

Singing came relatively easy to O’Hara, the youngest of three children raised on a cotton and cattle farm in Elk City, Okla. “My sister and I would sing songs by the Judds, and I was the cantor in our church,” O’Hara recalled. To this day, she said, concert gigs in which she merely sings are “easy-breezy. To get paid to do that is very funny to me; it doesn’t seem like work.”

It was when she was studying opera at Oklahoma City University that she stumbled upon what she calls her “annoying goal to prove myself as an actor.” Her teacher, Florence Birdwell, who some years before had trained another Broadway-bound blond coloratura from the Sooner State, Kristin Chenoweth, didn’t just nurture her singers’ pipes but honed their interpretive talents as well.

“She calls her technique ‘speaking on pitch,’ so it’s really all about saying the words, no matter what you’re singing.” Studying songs this way almost inevitably drew O’Hara to theater. “I wanted to talk more,” she said.

Her brilliant soprano and iconic look immediately attracted attention in New York. But something was off: Her voice has more luster than flash, and she exudes a self-possessed gravity that belies her diminutive size and makes her seem more earthbound than ethereal. In other words, she wasn’t quite right for the wide-eyed ingenues of “The Phantom of the Opera,” nor did she have the grit for “Rent.” Even now, she says, she occasionally gets feedback from casting directors that she’s “too put-together.”

She labored through a few flops -- the much-lamented “Sweet Smell of Success” in 2002 and the ridiculed “Dracula, the Musical” in 2004 -- before breaking through with Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ quasi-operatic “The Light in the Piazza.”

Even that success, though, started uncertainly and ended early: In its pre-Broadway runs at Seattle’s Intiman and Chicago’s Goodman theaters, O’Hara had played the supporting role of Franca. Then, after taking on the pivotal role of Clara for the Broadway run and nabbing a Tony nomination, she left the show after eight months for “Pajama Game.”

“I almost turned that down, because I felt like I’d be betraying ‘Piazza,’ ” O’Hara said. But she also felt relief upon leaving “Piazza,” in which she played a 19-year-old with the mind of a 10-year-old.

“It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, because I wanted it so badly to be real,” O’Hara said. “I didn’t want somebody coming to the show who was handicapped or had a handicapped person in their life to say, ‘She has no idea what it means to be this way.’ So I was always in pain in my mind, and it was hard for me to do that every day.”

Of course, if O’Hara were seeking an easy ride, “I wouldn’t be here in New York, walking through the rain. Sometimes I wish I had more of Dot in me -- she’s able to accept what she has and make a good life, instead of knowing that there’s more, more, more out there. That’s an artist’s mentality.”


‘Sunday in the Park With George’

Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, Westwood

When: Opens Wednesday. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Feb. 11

Price: $70 to $75

Contact: (310) 825-2101