Donna McKechnie: Inside the Music

Paper Mill Playhouse, NJ - Oct. 2, 2001

Review by John Kenrick

Transplanting a cabaret act to a Broadway sized house can be a dangerous move. A performance that crackles in the intimacy of a nightclub can wither facing more than a thousand seats. The key to pulling off such a transition is having a performer with a real theatrical instinct.

Well, I dare you to find anyone alive today who has more solid theatrical instincts than Donna McKechnie. The world remembers her as the original Cassie in A Chorus Line, but her career began in the chorus of How to Succeed In Business. When this lady stepped on to the stage of New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse to begin her one-woman show, it was like watching any monarch reclaim a realm that is theirs by divine right. Backed by a top-notch trio (under the deft direction of pianist Dennis Buck), Ms. McKechnie provided more satisfaction than most of the multi-million dollar spectacles on today's Broadway could ever hope to offer.

She states her premise early on – "In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Duboise said, 'I don't want realism, I want magic!' Well, I don't want magic. I want musical comedy!" For the next two hours, she delivers the joy of musical comedy at its best, in a beautifully modulated evening of songs, smiles, and at least a few tears. Playwright Christopher Durang has helped shape one of the most entertaining solo turns I've seen in years. Of course, it helps when the performer has had a life like McKechnie's.

How many people can reminisce about their dinner with Fred Astaire? Or the times they worked with Frank Loesser, Bob Fosse, Stephen Sondheim . . . and, of course, Michael Bennett. She shares her memories of Bennett without any hint of self pity or rancor – and you feel she is being totally up front when she says how much she still misses him. She also makes no bones about the professional frustrations she has known, like the time she responded to an audition notice looking for "a Donna McKechnie type" – and didn't get the part!

The first half of the evening includes a witty Hollywood medley and memories of how dance provided the escape from an unhappy childhood. In the second half, McKechnie takes us show by show through the highlights of her career. She recreates "If They Could See Me Now" from her tour of Sweet Charity, the full "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" trio from Company, and even the hilarious, neck-whipping "Turkey Lurkey Time" from Promises, Promises. A touching rendition of "In Buddies Eyes" reminds us how pale the recent flop Broadway revival of Follies was compared to the glorious Paper Mill version she starred in several years ago.

Inevitably, she comes to A Chorus Line, recreating the moment when the creators of that show presented her with her solo, a breathtaking soprano showpiece that McKechnie still finishes with a gorgeous high C, only to comically collapse in a heap from the effort. Luckily, the song was replaced by "The Music and the Mirror," and she still delivers that beloved number in its original key, with every lyrical step of Michael Bennett's choreography intact. Because Paper Mill is currently reviving ACL, there was the added thrill of seeing her perform with an exact replica of the revolving mirrored wall that was her backdrop a quarter of a century ago.

This wasn't an old-timer coasting on faded talent, but a vital artist at the peak of her abilities, delivering a heartfelt rendition of her most memorable moment. We didn't have to coast on memories of "back when" – we had the genuine article right in front of us, with all the power of now. With a final toss of her head, the number ended, and a grateful roar filled the theater. I can't tell you whether or not there was a dry eye in the house. I was too busy wiping away my own tears of gratitude to notice. After the nightmare of these past few weeks, it felt so damn good to see such a  life-affirming performance. How wonderful to feel the power of musical theater in the hands of such a star still worthy of her legend. Not just surviving, but thriving – that's what Donna McKechnie, her wonderful act, and the legacy of A Chorus Line are all about.

By the by, it is my birthday tomorrow. Thank you, Ms. McKechnie, for such a wonderful gift.

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