I would never associate Kelli O’Hara with Mean Girls. The actress, who has been performing on Broadway since 2000, is known for her blonde hair, big smile and warm, lilting soprano. In many of her roles, she has played ingenues and romantic leads and, on Tuesday night, will take the stage of Carnegie Hall to play Yum-Yum in The Collegiate Chorale’s performance of The Mikado.
Yum-Yum is a different type of role for O’Hara, who said she does not intend to only play the “nice girl”. Instead, she said she attempts to play roles in a sincere way, and make sense of the choices a character makes. And the choices that Yum-Yum makes in The Mikado are of a different nature than O’Hara has portrayed in her past roles.
“Yum Yum – listen to her name alone, right?” O’Hara said of her role. “You want to go with her and listen to her and not be annoyed by her. At the same time, her ego and her self-centric personality is the stuff that you can have a lot of fun with.”
A comedic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado tells the story of a town where flirting has been decreed a capital crime. Political, romantic, and of course sexual conflicts ensue as alliances are formed and broken. Along with O’Hara, the production stars Broadway veterans Victoria Clark, Chuck Cooper, Jason Danieley, Christopher Fitzgerald, and Jonathan Freeman. An extremely popular show, The Mikado is frequently performed and for this production, O’Hara said the cast is hoping to make the operetta a bit more edgy and modern.
“It’s Gilbert and Sullivan – it’s almost a farcical thing,” she said. “The material is fun and silly. We’re going to try to get a little friskiness out of the girls. I think that will be fun…The idea is to try to make it a little more spunky and interesting and biting.”
This performance of The Mikado is surprisingly relevant due to the themes of sexual repression that permeate the opera.
“This is a problem or subject matter that has affected us since the beginning of time,” O’Hara said. “The fact that we’re still suppressing it in a certain way…it’s interesting to me that it’s ever been an issue.”
The Mikado was first performed in 1885, but the operetta is still relevant in 2012, an aspect of current culture that O’Hara commented on.
“Isn’t it funny that it’s like war? We never learn from our mistakes. It just keeps going,” O’Hara said. “We question sexuality or choices with our bodies that we make for ourselves. We have the government – it’s interesting that what we can or can’t do with our bodies. Even if it seems really frivolous, like something like The Mikado could put it in lightly like a flirtation and it represents something else.”
The Mikado is not the first opera performed by O’Hara, who studied opera at Oklahoma City University and said she has worked to find her vocal niche professionally.
“I’m not a pop singer. I’ll never be a rock and roll singer. I do enjoy country music,” she said. “That’s something I definitely veer toward the more round type of singing. I feel like everything I do on Broadway is more round and less poppy. When I was young, I really was frustrated that I didn’t have more of that sound…then I realized you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”
Despite her ingenue looks and voice, O’Hara has tried to stretch herself and act in different types of roles. Her recent performance as Regan in King Lear gave her an opportunity to play a villainess instead of a heroine.
“I didn’t know if I would fall on my face or not,” she said of her performance. “It was something I’ve really wanted to do for a long time. I wanted to show myself in a different way. And that language…in opera, language is your primary study. I knew Shakespeare would fit that world for me. I loved it. I loved the breadth and the size of it. I started out just wanting to do a Shakespeare play in general. The fact that I got to play the ‘bad girl’ was just a bonus.”
Visiting old-fashioned art or entertainment and exploring its themes for a modern day audience is nothing new to O’Hara, who starred in the revivals of The Pajama Game and South Pacific, and is currently co-starring with Matthew Broderick in Nice Work If You Can Get It which is currently in previews on Broadway. Nice Work If You Can Get It features music by George and Ira Gershwin, but a new, original book by Joe DiPietro.
“I’ve been working on The Mikado in my dressing room bathroom at The Imperial Theater and I’m sure stage hands walk by and wonder who’s in there,” O’Hara said. “If you’ve got to find a place to sing, find a bathroom. I feel like it’s the most private place to be and it’s the most sound proof. It gives me a little oomph.”
O’Hara is playing the part of Billie, a bootlegger who falls in love with Broderick’s Jimmy, a rich playboy. The romance onstage, set to songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me” and the title melody, is a different kind of romance than might be found onstage when the songs were first written.
“The fun thing about Billie is she is not that feminine, not that worldly, not that bright,” O’Hara said. “I do feel like I play a lot of things that are feminine, but she gets to be the tough girl…She does fall in love quickly. She’s never had love before. But it’s not as much as you think. It’s a nice symbol of what the show is. It’s not about some guy and some weak little woman and they fall in love and it’s old fashioned like that. The girl has her own life and he has his, and they find each other and are intrigued by it. She’s a bootlegger, she works with men, and she gets to have some balls.”