Just because Kelli O'Hara isn't returning to Broadway until April -- as Nellie Forbush in Lincoln Center's much-awaited revival of South Pacific -- doesn't mean she'll be sitting around doing nothing. Next on her busy calendar is a special guest appearance on December 11 with the New York City Gay Men's Chorus in their 2007 Holiday Spectacular at Carnegie Hall. "I'm really excited to work with these guys and with Joanna Gleason, who's directing it," says O'Hara. "I'll be doing parts of a few songs, including 'All-Girl Band,' Put a Little Love in Your Heart,' and 'Let It Snow.' My big solo is 'I'll Be Home for Christmas.' Christmas has always been a huge thing for family."
These days, O'Hara has two families for the holidays -- hers and the one belonging to husband Greg Naughton, whom she married earlier this year after a five-year courtship. "Being with the Naughton family for Christmas is sort of what you'd expect," she says, with a laugh. "They go around the table and everyone recites a poem or sings a song. Every year now, Jimmy [Greg's dad, James Naughton] makes me sing an aria a capella in the kitchen. It's so different than being with my family in Oklahoma."
On January 26, O'Hara will perform a solo concert as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series -- and it promises to be a very eclectic affair. "I'm trying to have it coincide with the release of my album on Ghostlight Records -- even though I recorded it for Sony over a year ago. Harry Connick, Jr. [O'Hara's Pajama Game co-star] did all the arrangements. It's very mellow, with a casual jazz feel to it." While O'Hara is still putting the songlist together, she has made some definite selections. "I'm going to do a couple of Harry's songs, a song written by Greg called 'The Sun Went Out,' and a song I wrote called 'Here Now," she says. "I'll definitely do some standards, perhaps something from Pajama Game, and definitely something from Ricky Ian Gordon. I may also do this arrangement of 'Fable' from The Light in the Piazza that Harry did for the album --even though Adam Guettel may hate it. It's a version of how I think Clara heard the song -- as a lullaby sung by her mother. I think it's very interesting."
Not surprisingly, the project O'Hara is most excited about is South Pacific. "We did this reading of the original 1948 script, which had a lot of language that would shock people, and then we added some of it back into the 1949 Broadway script. I think we need to remind people how much the show is about racism," says O'Hara, who admits there is a challenge in playing the seemingly naive nurse. "Bartlett Sher, our director, and I have talked a lot about how I need to find her innocence and her joy. In many ways, my grandmother was a lot like Nellie -- she was blond, beautiful, and from Arkansas -- and she was naive because of how she grew up. But we're also going to build a world where these nurses have watched people die and scream in pain, so that when her joy comes out of this darkness, it's even more special."
O'Hara is also greatly looking forward to working with her co-star, Brazilian opera singer Paolo Szot. "He's very gentle, and he's singing the score the way it should be sung, with great communication. I was concerned that because he was an opera singer -- and I used to be one -- that he wouldn't be a real actor." Still, O'Hara admits the part of Nellie has one significant downside. "I have to cut off my hair. They can't wig me, because I have to wash it onstage every night. I've never had short hair, and the idea is a little nerve-wracking. Greg's not happy about it. He keeps coming up with lots of ideas, but they keep getting turned down."
While Jenn Gambatese has already impressed Broadway audiences with her leading roles in the musicals All Shook Up and Tarzan, she's playing it straight -- so to speak -- as Marie, the girlfriend of impoverished painter Jean-Francois Millet (played by Norbert Leo Butz in Is He Dead?, David Ives' adaptation of a little-known Mark Twain play. "I've been itching to do a play. The fact is I didn't really train for musicals when I was at NYU, so even I'm surprised I've worked so steadily in them. When I first read it, I was a little surprised at how funny it was; I really didn't know what to expect from Twain. But once you work on it, you realize you have to work to make sure the audience finds it funny."
Gambatese says playing Marie isn't as easy as it might look. "She has a lot of gumption, but she's also very naive, with this earnest, sweet nature. She means everything she says, and so her comedy isn't right there, the way it is with some of the other characters," she says. "The most important thing is that her love story with Millet has to fuel all the crazy things he does in the play. As our director Michael Blakemore says, you can do as much as you want with this material as long you play the truth."
The actress is also finding another benefit in doing a play instead of a musical. "The civility of this process is wonderful for my marriage. I think my husband was more excited about this than I was. For example, it's great not waking up in the morning worrying about how your voice is or how long you can talk on the phone."
IN A HUFF
Parnell's version of Huxley is based strongly on his real-life counterpart, which gave Huff great opportunities for research. "You can just go online these days and find so much. In the play, he talks about this trip he took to Montblanc, and I was able to go on YouTube and see what the place looks like."
Huxley is a decided change of pace for Huff, who's best known for his roles in Take Me Out and the Off-Broadway production of The Little Dog Laughed. "You think you're going to do a lot of period pieces after you get out of school -- wear cool clothes and have an English accent -- and I never got to do that," he says. "I also decided it was time to do a play where I keep my clothes on the whole time. You have to relearn what it's like to be naked on stage every time you do it, and while it's ultimately therapeutic, it's nice to not have to go to the gym quite as much."
If Huff hasn't been absent from the New York stage for a bit, it was because he was busy filming the HBO critical favorite, The Wire, in which he plays Michael Steintorf. "It was a complete dream come true, because the writing and direction was so first rate. I had this feeling of being totally spoiled and wanting to do more high-quality stuff. The funny thing is I got used to getting up early and going to bed late, and now I have to get used to a theater schedule again."
WHERE THE STARS ARE
Rachel York, William Michals, and Kip Wilborn will perform with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in New London for From the Met to Broadway -- Act II on December 1. David Burnham, LaToya London, Sally Struthers, and Mary Wilson are just a few of the star participants in the Help Is on the Way For The Holidays IX benefit at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre on December 2 -- the same theater where the legendary Debbie Reynolds will perform on December 7. Royal Shakespeare veteran Ruth Rosen will celebrate the 250th birthday of poet William Blake at the 92nd Street Y on December 3. Soon-to-be Spamalot star Clay Aiken will perform at the State Theatre in New Brunswick on December 6.
Former Tony nominee Calvin Levels will perform his solo play James Baldwin: Down from the Mountaintop at the The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on December 7-9. The great Harvey Evans will be among the panelists for Dancers Over 40's The Men of Fosse -- It's About Time! at the New Dance Group on December 9; Tommy Tune, KT Sullivan, and Lizbeth MacKay will star in the Food for Thought readings of Red Peppers and Amicable Partings at the Players Club on December 13; and the singular musical group The Tiger Lillies will play St. Ann's Warehouse, December 13-15.