Dallas — When the opera-trained, Tony-winning Broadway actress Kelli O’Hara took the Meyerson Symphony Center stage on Friday for her first live performance since the pandemic shutdowns began, she noted that in rehearsal earlier that day, “these musicians made me cry.” That referred to the overwhelming feeling of working with live musicians, in this case a reduced Dallas Symphony Orchestra — now about the size of what a Broadway orchestra would have been in the era that spawned many of the songs she performs.
The concert marks the first DSO pops show of its 2020 fall season, which, in response to the required safety precautions, only allows about 100 in-person spectators — kind of eerie in a hall that seats 1,200. Masks are required in the audience and on the musicians (except for woodwind and brass players), there are no physical tickets, staff is constantly cleaning common surfaces like handrails, and to reduce the risk of social interaction, there is no intermission.
After the orchestra played the South Pacific overture (remember those?), O’Hara entered wearing a sleeveless, black, floor-length, ruffled gown. She and conductor Rob wore masks in their entrances and exits but took them off to sing and conduct. The first five or so rows of the hall were blocked off — projectile spit droplets come with the territory of being a vocalist with impeccable enunciation.
“We wanted so badly to make music for you,” O’Hara joyfully announced. That she did.
O’Hara is, of course, a theater pro. She sang out and proud as if the hall was filled to capacity. She had stories about the songs in her set, some of which came from roles she played on Broadway (the title song from Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza, “So in Love” from Kiss Me Kate). Others were a “man song,” such as “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific (arranged by her frequent collaborator Dan Lipton).
The set was heavy on Rodgers and Hammerstein — “You would expect that from someone from Western Oklahoma” — including three tunes from The King and I (she won her Tony for playing Anna), and to showcase her opera chops, “If I Loved You” from Carousel. The story about her big Broadway break in a show by Richard Rodgers’ grandson, Adam Guettel, was especially charming.
During “Getting to Know You,” she had the audience sing along, even in their masks. To showcase her comedy side, she performed a tune that Lipton wrote for her: “They Don’t Let You in the Opera if You’re a Country Star,” wearing a cowboy hat and paying homage to her roots of growing up on the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandle border and loving country, western and opera. (She is one of the Broadway stars that graduated from Oklahoma City University, along with Kristin Chenoweth.)
Also in the mix were Jerry Bock’s “He Loves Me” (from She Loves Me), Jason Robert Brown's "To Build a Home" (The Bridges of Madison County), and Sondheim’s “What More Do I Need” from Saturday Night. She closed with Jule Styne’s “Make Someone Happy” (from Do Re Mi), which came with a heartwarming story about co-lyricist Betty Comden.
Given that Broadway is shuttered through the end of May 2021, and the Metropolitan Opera won’t return to the stage until the fall of 2021, the appearance of a star who has performed at both truly made us happy — even if through tears.