NEW YORK — Kelli O’Hara is finally getting the chance to lighten up.

For the last three-and-a-half years, the actress has been playing Clara Johnson, a mentally handicapped teenager at the center of the Broadway show “The Light in the Piazza,” garnering critical acclaim and a Tony nod along the way. This month she switches genres at last to star in the upbeat musical revival of “The Pajama Game” with Harry Connick Jr.

But first, O’Hara had to pass a chemistry test with Connick. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t that difficult. “Of course we have chemistry,” the 29-year-old O’Hara says laughing, “because I’m a straight woman, and he’s a straight man. And he’s been lifting weights for the last three months and looks like a god.”

Still, it wasn’t just physical appearances that caused the sparks to fly (at least on stage — O’Hara’s engaged and Connick’s married). Having earned a degree in opera, O’Hara is astute about musical theory and credits Connick with being a “brilliant musician.” They also are able to make each other laugh.

“She’s kind of a goofball, I’m kind of a goofball,” Connick, a first-timer to the theater, says. “She’s limitless with her sense of humor, which put me at ease.”

At the very heart of the duo’s connection, however, is their strong Southern roots. Connick’s music is intrinsically tied to his New Orleans upbringing, while O’Hara remains deeply attached to her family back in Oklahoma. The soprano left her hometown, where she was “the one person to sing at all the funerals and all the weddings,” seven-and-a-half years ago to pursue her dream as a singer. Within four days of her arrival in New York she landed a part and has managed to work consistently ever since in productions such as “Follies,” “Dracula” and “Sweet Smell of Success.”

While “Light in the Piazza” pushed O’Hara into the spotlight, she didn’t walk away from the show easily. “They had a conniption fit,” she says of the producers. “I was so personally intertwined with these people on a heart level that I felt like I was stabbing them in the back. And then I realized this is business.”

This story first appeared in the February 8, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

So she took on Babe, the feisty and strong-willed pajama factory worker (a role made famous by Doris Day in the 1957 film, based on the original Broadway musical) who falls for her supervisor, played by Connick. O’Hara instantly identified with the character. “A negative part of her and me is the need to prove things,” she says. “But when she does release, it’s so satisfying to her and everybody else. A lot of times I’m on the surface, and when I do give in to myself, it feels pretty powerful.”

It’s likely that just that determination, combined with her vulnerability, landed O’Hara where she is, living the dream of other young artists who travel from small towns with the hope of one day seeing their names in lights. “I remember giving myself two years to get on Broadway, and if I didn’t, I was going to go home. It took just under two years and almost didn’t happen,” O’Hara says. “I don’t think I would have gone home, though.”

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