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by Michael Portantiere

Kelli and Paulo and Alan and Fritz

  • KelliPaulo.jpg

    Kelli and Paulo and Alan and Fritz

    Long-running Broadway shows are the backbone of the New York theater industry; but some of this city's most memorable performances are those one-night-only or very limited run events that carry an extra jolt of excitement not only because the talent involved is awesome, but also for the fact that comparatively few people are lucky enough to attend. Prime example: the New York Philharmonic's 2007 concert performances of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's My Fair Lady, which starred the luminous Kelli O'Hara as Eliza Doolittle and a brilliant, perfectly cast Kelsey Grammer as Henry Higgins.

    If you missed Kelli's Liza, you now have a chance to get a taste of what it was like. Just show up at Carnegie Hall on Friday evening, April 16, when she will join the New York Pops for a Lerner and Loewe concert that will be conducted by Steven Reineke and will also feature The Clurman Singers and dancers from the New York Theatre Ballet. If that's not enough enticement, here's the kicker: Kelli's co-guest star for the evening will be Paulo Szot, the golden-voiced, devastatingly attractive Brazilian baritone who played Emile de Becque opposite her Nellie Forbush in Lincoln Center Theater's gorgeous revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. (Note: My photos of Kelli and Paulo, above, were taken at the 2008 Tony Award nominees' reception.)

    When I recently spoke with new mom Kelli, she reminisced about the joys and difficulties of performing My Fair Lady with the Philharmonic: "In the nine days that we had to put it together, the dialect was the scariest thing for me. I was okay with the upper-clash British accent, because I had done it before, but the cockney was a real challenge. I worked very hard with the dialect coach, Stephen Gabis, and he was a great help to me. I really enjoyed playing Eliza because she's so feisty. I love feisty!"

    She will be reprising some of her MFL songs in the Pops concert -- "the obvious ones, I guess you'd say. And what's really exciting to me is that I'll be doing some songs I'd never even heard before, from Paint Your Wagon and Gigi. Of course, Paulo and I will sing some duets, like 'The Heather on the Hill' from Brigadoon. And there will be some choral pieces with a really wonderful choir.

    "The evening is going to be an education for me, because I wasn't familiar with a lot of these songs. It surprises people when I say that, but I primarily studied opera, not musical theater. I knew Rodgers and Hammerstein, because I heard their songs being played while I was growing up in Oklahoma. But there are a lot of musicals by other composers that I still don't know very well. The other day, someone told me, 'You'd be great for Paint Your Wagon,' and I said, 'Thanks, I'll look into that!' "

    The L&L concert will not mark Kelli's first time onstage at Carnegie Hall: "My debut there was in a big evening with the Pops, with Rob Fisher conducting. I also sang there with the New York City Gay Men's Chorus for their Christmas concert two years ago. When you're performing at Carnegie Hall, it's a heavy thing, and it's best not to think about it too much. You have to make sure not to tell yourself, 'Well, I guess I just walked past the place where Judy Garland sat at the lip of the stage..."

    Paulo Szot, for his part, tells me that he's very much looking forward to his reunion with Miss O'Hara: "The last time I performed with Kelli was her last day with South Pacific, in January 2009. Kelli was my first leading lady in a Broadway show, and we have so much fun together. I enjoy every second with her, on stage and off."

    Prior to his triumph in South Pacific, Szot was rarely called upon to sing songs from the American musical theater canon. "I have to confess that Lerner and Loewe are new to my repertoire," he says. "The only song of theirs that I sang [before we began rehearsing for this concert] is 'If Ever I Would Leave You' from Camelot. But I was always a big fan of their musicals, and when I received this offer, I accepted it right away. I'm particularly looking forward to singing 'Gigi' and 'I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face' with the New York Pops."

    What L&L roles would Paulo like to play in toto? "King Arthur or Sir Lancelot in Camelot, or maybe Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady -- although I suppose someone with a Brazilian accent shouldn't be teaching English diction." As for plum parts in other musicals, when I suggest that he might be great as Guido Contini in Nine, he mulls it over and replies: "Guido is a very different role then Emile de Becque, but why not? I like these challenges!"

    Paulo earned acclaim for his recent Metropolitan Opera debut in Shostakovich's rarely performed opera The Nose. So how, if at all, are operagoers different from musical theater fans? "I don't think there's a difference," he says. "Both audiences want to have fun, to laugh, to cry and have a great time. I believe that when an artist manages to communicate with truth, the connection is established and the responsiveness is a consequence."

    For more information about the New York Pops' Lerner and Loewe concert, click here.

    Published on Thursday, April 8, 2010

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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