Westport star power: Kelli O’Hara in spotlight as playhouse gala honoree
Tony Award-winning actress Kelli O’Hara sings “Something Wonderful” and other memorable songs as she portrays Anna Leonowens six days a week in the revival of the classic musical, “The King and I” at New York’s Lincoln Center.
O’Hara, a Westport resident, sang something different Monday at the Westport Country Playhouse where she was honored at the theater’s annual fundraising gala, with the theme “Something Wonderful: A Gala Evening Celebrating Kelli O’Hara,” where others effusively sang her praises.
During the gala, O’Hara sang “Make Someone Happy” from the 1960 Broadway musical “Do Re Mi,” making the crowd of nearly 600 people happy with her mellifluous voice, which earned her the Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical last June.
“We saw her in ‘The King and I’ and ‘South Pacific.’ She’s amazing. She’s marvelous and talented and gracious; old-world glamour and talent and charisma,” said Deborah Bono of Westport. She and her husband Girome are long-time supporters of the playhouse, but were attending the yearly gala for the first time.
The red carpet was populated with dozens of familiar faces from the Westport and Weston “neighborhood,” as well as from stage and screen, among them legendary film producer and studio executive Harvey Weinstein; actor Frank Converse and wife Maureen Anderman, a veteran of 18 Broadway shows and Tony Award nominee; Alisyn Camerota, a television news journalist currently co-anchoring CNN’s “New Day” program, and James Naughton, film, stage and television actor, two-time Tony Award-winner and O’Hara’s father-in-law. She is married to Naughton’s son Greg, who walked the red carpet with her, along with one of their children and her mother Laura O’Hara, who is visiting from their native Edmond, Okla.
On stage, O’Hara was serenaded by two of her “King and I” cast mates — Jake Lucas, who plays her son, and Jose Llana, who portrays the king — and by television and film star Matthew Morrison, best known for his role as Will Schuester in the television smash hit, “Glee.” Morrison sang “As Long As She Needs Me,” with re-written lyrics to the song “As Long As He Needs Me,” from the Broadway musical “Oliver.” O’Hara and Morrison have a long performing history dating back more than a decade when they worked together on the Broadway production of “The Light in the Piazza.” They have also appeared together at Carnegie Hall and the Met Gala.
Asked if she had any advice for the young aspiring performers in the crowd O’Hara suggested they embrace who they are. “Everybody is different. Everybody is individual. It’s what makes us different that makes us stand out … The people who make their mark are the ones who have never been seen. They have to be confident in who they are,” she said. O’Hara is a six-time Tony nominee whose other Broadway credits include, “The Pajama Game,” “South Pacific,” “Jekyll & Hyde” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” opposite Matthew Broderick.
Although Beth Huisking is not an aspiring actress she definitely stood out in the crowd Monday. Huisking, general manager of the playhouse, wore a large fascinator of white lace, white feathers and black ribbon on loan from New York Times best-selling novelist Jane Green of Westport, the author of 17 books.
“I love the British idea of wearing fascinators at important events,” Huisking said. Green doesn’t even wait for important events. She wore it recently to the Westport Country Playhouse, where she has a small office to write. “I was writing away wearing the fascinator in jeans and a tee-shirt. I thought it would be funny,” said Green, whose gala auction item Monday was a promise to name a character in her new book after the successful bidder.
O’Hara was not the only honoree Monday. The third annual Playhouse Leadership Award went to John Samuelson, a member of the Westport Country Playhouse’s Board of Trustees. Gala proceeds will benefit the not-for-profit theater, its work on stage, with schools and throughout the community.