Broadway star and three-time Tony Award nominee Kelli O'Hara isn't a bit reticent about crediting her two summers as a college kid in Music Theatre of Wichita's resident troupe with being where she is these days.
"When I was in Wichita, I roomed with three other girls who became my best friends. We ended up moving to New York together 12 years ago, and we are still in each other's lives every day," says O'Hara, who was with MTW in 1997 and 1998.
"Even better, being in Music Theatre showed me that this is what I wanted to do. Up to that point, I don't think I even really considered that I could go to Broadway," she says. "Music Theatre gave me my best friends and my life."
As a bit of a "thank you," O'Hara, most recently the acclaimed cockeyed optimist Nurse Nellie in the first Broadway revival of "South Pacific" in 60 years, will perform a special concert next Sunday to kick off Music Theatre's 40th anniversary season.
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O'Hara will re-create show-stopping moments from "South Pacific," "My Fair Lady" and "Show Boat" along with selections from her sold-out cabaret show at Feinstein's in New York City.
Appearing with her will be Damon Kirsche, who starred in MTW's recent productions of "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot." Conducting the MTW orchestra will be Thomas W. Douglas.
A native Oklahoman who was born in Tulsa and raised near Elk City, O'Hara was studying opera at Oklahoma City University when she applied for MTW's summer program to get some practical stage experience.
"In looking around at the various summer stock programs we could audition for, Music Theatre was the really desirable one for me. I still remember getting the call from Wayne (Bryan, producing artistic director). I pretty much went crazy," she says.
O'Hara says her MTW experience also gave her the confidence to throw herself fearlessly into performance.
"Because we were always performing one show while rehearsing the next one, it taught me how to put up a show quickly. It was the best education you could get."
That first summer, she did five shows, including "Brigadoon," "Oliver!" and "Most Happy Fella," singing and dancing with guest stars from New York and Los Angeles.
"It was a really good mix of shows that gave me a lot of different experiences — and a lot of fun things to do. I was one of the wailing wives screaming high C's in 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.' I even got to brag that I had one line in 'Meet Me in St. Louis.' I was an escort on someone's arm, but I got to say 'Charmed!' when introduced. I was thrilled."
O'Hara made her Broadway debut in "Jekyll and Hyde" in 2000 as the understudy for Emma, Dr. Jekyll's fiancee. She then went to Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" (2001), "Sweet Smell of Success: The Musical" (2002) and "Dracula: The Musical" as Lucy, the vampire's first victim, whose nude seduction scene became a cause celebre in itself.
She secured her first Tony nomination for "The Light in the Piazza" (2005) and her second for "The Pajama Game" (2006).
The most recent Tony attention came with the revival of "South Pacific" (2008) as Nellie, the naive Arkansas nurse who falls for a French planter but has to confront her racist feelings about his half-Polynesian children — a highly controversial topic when the musical premiered in the 1950s.
"Some thought the revival might be dated, but it proved to be timely," O'Hara says. "We were at war again, Obama had just become president, and feelings of racism were still around, even if more subtly."
While musical theater has been her emphasis for the past dozen years, O'Hara has made non-musical appearances on television in such shows as NBC's "Blue Blood," CBS's "Numb3rs" and PBS's "Alexander Hamilton." She's worked in film in "The Dying Gaul" with Patricia Clarkson and a short called "The Key to Reserva" directed by Martin Scorsese.
"As an actor, I like the non-musical work to keep things fresh for me."
But O'Hara, who is married to Greg Naughton (son of actor James Naughton) and mother of nearly 2-year-old Owen James, says she loves to sing.
"After all, I moved to New York after college, not Los Angeles."
She is currently helping develop three new musicals. The first is "Finding Neverland," based on the 2004 Johnny Depp/Kate Winslet movie about the man who wrote "Peter Pan." It's slated for previews this fall. After that are musicals to be adapted from "Far From Heaven" and "The Bridges of Madison County."
Broadway is exciting and challenging as the pinnacle of show biz, but O'Hara, whose last appearance here was as a returning guest star in MTW's 2001 "Show Boat," says that performing in Wichita is special.
"In New York, you are conscious of the business of theater. In Wichita, I am reminded of all the fun it can be. You never want to lose track of that."
If you go
kelli o'hara In concert
What: Concert with the Broadway star to kick off Music Theatre of Wichita's 40th anniversary season
Where: Century II Concert Hall
When: 2 p.m. May 15
How much: Tickets $40 orchestra and $20 balcony; available through Music Theatre box office at 316-265-3107.