Voice of Disney’s Belle didn’t expect to fall in love with Las Vegas

Vegas Voices is a weekly question-and-answer series featuring notable Las Vegans.

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Stepping inside this particular Henderson home, it’s instantly apparent that whoever lives here has a definite Disney hang-up.

The evidence hangs on every wall, from a “Bambi” watercolor to multiple paintings depicting the major characters from “Beauty and the Beast,” the 1991 Disney classic that became the first animated feature to be nominated for a best picture Oscar.

There’s also an engraved crystal plaque that helps to explain the Disney fixation: the one proclaiming Paige O’Hara as an official Disney Legend.

Voicing “Beauty and the Beast’s” Belle “changed my whole life,” O’Hara admits, recalling how composers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wanted Broadway veterans for the vocal roles. “A lifetime job! Thank you!”

Of course,O’Hara’s had other jobs since creating the role of Belle. On Broadway, she played “Les Miserables’ ” Fantine and she recently concluded a nine-year Las Vegas run as “Menopause the Musical’s” Soap Star. (O’Hara’s husband, Michael Piontek, also is a stage veteran, with Strip credits ranging from “EFX” and “Forever Plaid” to “Mamma Mia!”)

Five years ago, the Walt Disney Co. retired O’Hara as the voice of Belle, a fate shared by her fellow Disney princesses. Yet she remains a Disney staple thanks to her talents as a painter.

These days, O’Hara spends hours in her home studio, working on canvases destined for Town Square’s Magical Memories gallery and other Disney Fine Art showcases.

“I’m the only original actress and singer now painting Disney princesses for Disney Fine Art,” she notes. (She’s also creating a conceptual painting as a DVD extra for the upcoming 25th-anniversary “Beauty and the Beast” rerelease.)

We recently spoke with O’Hara, 59, about her journey from Broadway baby to Disney princess to Las Vegas favorite.

Review-Journal: What brought you to Las Vegas?

O’Hara: I came to Las Vegas to guest star in “The Great Radio City Musical Spectacular” at the Flamingo Hilton. Little did we know, we ended up staying. It was right when Broadway was coming to Las Vegas and it was kind of nice to get away from the rat race of Manhattan.

RJ: Did you have any expectations when you moved here?

O’Hara: I really didn’t. I didn’t expect I’d love it here.

RJ: What’s your most memorable experience on a Las Vegas stage?

O’Hara: It’s really hard to say. The (Radio City) Rockettes show was incredibly exciting. The first night, I learned Japanese (for the many Japanese tourists at the show) … and they were cheering.

RJ: Who’s the most memorable Las Vegan you’ve performed with?

O’Hara: Without question, it’s Robert Goulet. (O’Hara sang with Goulet at The Venetian and played opposite him in “South Pacific.”) Before I met him and worked with him, I idolized him. As a little girl, when I saw him on “The Judy Garland Show,” I realized how funny he was. … He was very intelligent, very loving, very funny. A very down-to-earth person.

RJ: What’s your favorite thing about living in Las Vegas?

O’Hara: My favorite thing is my beautiful home. I spent my whole life living in a little apartment in New York. … The first time I bought a house, I was well into my 40s. I love having a house and trees and neighbors and a pool. … I love the fact that you can have a large city and a small town in one place.

RJ: What’s your favorite “Vegas-y” thing to do here?

O’Hara: I’m not much for nightclubs. I love getting all dressed up and going to one of the top restaurants. … My husband’s the expert in the culinary arts. I like the whole experience of it.

RJ: What’s your favorite un-”Vegas-y” thing to do?

O’Hara: I am a die-hard NBA fan and I love the NBA Summer League. You can watch basketball all day and into the evening. … For hardcore fans of basketball, you can go back and forth and you can discover some really wonderful talent.

RJ: What’s the most surprising thing about living in Las Vegas?

O’Hara: When you think of Las Vegas and you’re a New Yorker, you think of the Strip, almost like an adult Disneyland. But there’s so much more about Las Vegas. I had no clue. … I really love the mountains, Lake Mead, Red Rock Canyon. It’s the best of both worlds.

Read more stories from Carol Cling at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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