Kelli O’Hara, so memorable as nurse Nellie Forbush in the recent revival “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center, admits to still riding the high of that production.
“I’m trying to soak it for all it’s worth,” she says with a laugh. “It was an uplifting and positive experience the whole time, and we don’t always get those. And all of us knew about it while we were in it, which doesn’t always happen. We knew we lucky while we were there, as opposed to looking back and seeing how lucky we had been. We all felt it.”
The production — directed by Bartlett Sher and co-starring Paolo Szot and Danny Burstein — was preserved for posterity in a PBS special, an opportunity O’Hara missed for her last Lincoln Center production, “The Light in the Piazza,” in which she played a twenty-something girl with the mind of a 10-year-old.
“They had asked me to come back for ‘Piazza,’ but I was doing ‘Pajama Game’ at the time,” O’Hara recalls. “For a kid who watched Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin in that iconic performance of ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ and thought, ‘I want to do one of those so some kid someday can learn the show from watching me,’ it broke my heart that I couldn’t do the ‘Piazza’ one, but I was so very proud I was able to do this one.”
On Saturday, she makes her debut at the 250-seat Emelin Theater — with performances at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. — and a local hand to guide her: Adam Ben-David, a Mamaroneck native, will be accompanying.
“Adam’s a great friend of mine,” O’Hara says. “We did ‘Light in the Piazza’ together and we’ve been playing together ever since. He’s a great spirit and he’s so excited to be playing at the Emelin, because he used to see shows there.”
O’Hara’s concert schedule — with at least four concerts a month — keeps her busy.
“I’ll never forget a day in June, literally I was running across town,” she says. “I had a luncheon thing then I ran to do an evening thing and a Joe’s Pub gig at 10:30 at night. Sometimes concert work can be just as challenging as Broadway, because you have to learn new material. But I’m not gone every single day of my life.”
“I definitely love having days when I don’t sing and my voice appreciates it, too.”
There’s a lot more to do beyond singing these days.
There’s Owen, her son, who arrived during the “South Pacific” run.
“Owen changes everything in the most wonderful way,” gushes O’Hara. “He changes my lifestyle and priorities. It makes everything mean a little bit more.”
He finds his way into her mind in those intimate cabaret shows, she says.
“All the time, because it’s so personal” she says. “And even when I went back into ‘South Pacific’ the first time, he was only three months old. He kind of filled every moment on the stage for me. I was a little bit of a basket case, having to leave him. Everything I was doing — the fun things, like ‘(I’m Gonna) Wash That Man (Right Outa My Hair)’ — had so much more glee and lightheartedness to them. Thinking about a baby is pretty fun.”
She has just started working with a Juilliard voice teacher to “get my opera chops going again,” and she still takes a class now and again with her lifelong music teacher, Florence Birdwell, in Oklahoma.
O’Hara keeps her set-list secret, but she does allow that she’ll sing from her 2008 album, “Wonder in the World” — which had songs with her “Pajama Game” co-star Harry Connick Jr. — and from the shows she has appeared in. She’s hoping to record a new album early in the new year and has a Christmas album in the works, too.
Singing cabaret for 100 or 300 people presents perils for a stage actress, O’Hara says.
“If you do too much cabaret, it kind of messes you up a bit,” she says. “You have to balance yourself. Cabaret is very intimate, with people right at your feet. You can whisper and talk about very intimate things and sing very intimately. But you don’t want to get too dependent on that microphone and that intimacy, because with stage we all know that it’s sort of a heightened performance. It’s better for me to do a little of both. They feed two different sides of myself.
“The way I look at cabaret is very much the way I would sing something,” she says. “That’s why I choose the songs I choose, because they can be brought out of a character and into me and I can sing them from my point of view.”
That works fine, O’Hara says, except for songs from “Light in the Piazza,” written by Adam Guettel, the grandson of Richard Rodgers, who wrote “South Pacific” with Oscar Hammerstein II.
“I’ve tried, but I cannot sing those songs out of context,” she says. “Their context is through her, through Clara, and it just doesn’t work for me to sing vocally or sentimentally, I can’t think of them without thinking of her, so I do sing those in character. But in a cabaret setting, most everything else comes out of me.”
Next month, O’Hara will be back in a more theater-voiced mode, back at Lincoln Center — at Alice Tully Hall — in a star-studded concert version of “Knickerbocker Holiday,” the 1938 political satire musical by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, who were neighbors on South Mountain Road in New City.
The cast, including Victor Garber, Ben Davis and Christopher Fitzgerald, will be led by New Rochelle native Ted Sperling, who was musical director on “South Pacific” and “Piazza.”
“Ted and I try to work together as much as we can,” O’Hara says. “We did the Bernstein evening at New York City Opera in early November.”
From Guettel to Rodgers to Berstein to Weill.
“I’m really excited. I’ve always been a Kurt Weill fan. I’ve sung him since college,” she says.
The rehearsal period for “Knickerbocker Holiday” — which will run Jan. 25 and 26 — will be brief.
“We get less than a week to throw it together,” O’Hara says. “These fast and furious concert situations — like ‘Bells Are Ringing’ or ‘My Fair Lady’ — at the time, they seem ridiculous, but they end up being your favorite things because you never get a chance to get tired of them. It’s a blast of fun and then it’s over and you wish it’d come back.”
She, Owen, and her husband, Greg Naughton, now call the Lower Hudson Valley home.
“I’m here among the trees,” she says in a phone conversation.
And this weekend, she’ll be down to earth for all to hear.
Kelli O’Hara, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., Dec. 11. (8 p.m. sold out.) Emelin Theatre, 153 Library Lane, Mamaroneck. $60. 914.698.0098. www.emelin.org.