Most people who came to the Mayo Performing Arts Center for Friday’s sold-out season opener had to be content merely watching Broadway star Kelli O’Hara.
But Cathy Roy got to BE Kelli O’Hara.
The Mayo Center’s education director stood in for O’Hara during rehearsal–dueting with the evening’s co-star, Brian Stokes Mitchell, in front of Roy’s 21-teen chorus from the center’s Performing Arts Company.
Pinch-hitting for a singer described by the New York Times as “Broadway’s golden girl and luminous star” might sound intimidating.
But Roy was there to prepare her students for the show’s closing number, on a night celebrating the theater’s 20th season and $2 million of renovations.
And two-time Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell could not have been nicer, she said, still aglow after the youths had sung beautifully on Some Enchanted Evening.
“It’s great whenever the kids have an example of someone that talented, but that humble and kind,” said Roy, who has been featured with the Boston Pops on PBS and directed full-scale youth productions of Hairspray and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for the Mayo Center.
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O’Hara, star of Broadway’s The Bridges of Madison County, Pajama Game and South Pacific, relieved Roy near the end of the rehearsal.
“I thanked them both for being such role models,” Roy said. Mitchell– whose credits include Broadway productions of Ragtime, Kiss Me Kate and Man of La Mancha and TV roles in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Frasier and Ugly Betty–thanked Roy.
“He said, ‘No one gets anywhere without a great teacher,'” she recounted.
Mitchell and O’Hara taught everyone a few lessons in showmanship during the two-hour concert. Chief among these was the importance of play.
“You don’t work an instrument, you play it,” Mitchell reminded the audience. “You don’t work a show, you do a play.”
Yes, both singers gave their regards to Broadway and borrowed a few pages from the Great American Songbook. (O’Hara: A Wonderful Guy, If I Loved You, Always, Francesca’s Story from Bridges; Mitchell: I, Don Quixote; How to Handle a Woman, What Kind of Fool Am I, The Impossible Dream.)
But it was their playful detours, guided by gifted pianists, that really sparkled.
O’Hara, who makes her opera debut at the Met this year alongside Renee Fleming in The Merry Widow, gave a side-splitting performance of You Can’t Sing Opera If You’re a Country Star.
Penned by her pianist, Dan Lipton, the tune nods to O’Hara’s Oklahoma roots and her recent forays into motherhood, managing to send up honky tonk music, stuffy opera aficionados and childbirth in a rollicking ride that showcases the 38-year-old’s vocal and comedic range.
With help from Tedd Firth, who unleashed an orchestra from his Steinway, Mitchell was playfully captivating on Waters of March, the hypnotic musical poem by Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Mitchell tooted whimsical jazz riffs into a melodium, then sprawled across the floor, with a graceful athleticism suggesting he’s a young 57. He appeared to thoroughly enjoy every measure of the song, and the crowd was happy to reciprocate with some call-and-response fun during It Ain’t Necessarily So.
All in all, it was a feel-good night that left one feeling good about what the next 20 seasons will bring to the Mayo. Perhaps, as Mitchell hinted during the last encore, another Kelli O’Hara will emerge from the Performing Arts Company.
That would be just fine with Samantha Alexander. The 15-year-old from Mendham sang in the chorus and said Mitchell and O’Hara were “hysterical” in rehearsal. Although the practice session only lasted about 30 minutes, “when you’re working with them, it feels like you’ve known them a long time,” Alexander said.
Sara Brazofsky, 13, of Park Ridge, admitted she was really nervous about singing behind Mitchell and O’Hara. But seeing two pros in action was instructive.
“I learned to just be confident. They’re very confident on stage,” she said.
And how was O’Hara’s understudy, Ms. Roy?
“Amazing!” Brazofsky said of her instructor.