Donna McKechnie at Pizza on the Park

Donna McKechnie in cabaret with Nathan Martin (piano)

Songs with music and lyrics by Jule Styne, Leo Robin, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Nacio Herb Brown, Arthur Freed, Walter Donaldson, Gus Kahn, Allan Roberts, Doris Fisher, Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler, Francesca Blumenthal, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Marvin Hamlisch, Edward Kleban, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, Leonard Bernstein, and Betty Comden & Adolph Green

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 13 October, 2009
Venue: Pizza on the Park, Knightsbridge, London

Donna McKechnie, one of the USA’s best all-round performers – dancer, singer, actress – has had the good fortune to be in some of the best American musical shows of the last century. Inspired and influenced as a child by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film “The Red Shoes”, she trained as a ballerina before moving to New York where she was turned down by the American Ballet Theatre. Instead she took a short-lived job in the corps at Radio City Music Hall but then left to do summer stock in Massachusetts.

However, a touring production of “West Side Story” came her way and by 1961 she had made her Broadway debut in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” working with choreographer Bob Fosse and his wife Gwen Verdon. After appearing in a production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, she landed a featured dancing role in both the New York and London productions of “Promises, Promises”, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s musical version of the Billy Wilder film “The Apartment”, with choreography by Michael Bennett whom Donna subsequently married. More shows followed including a tour of “Call Me Madam” with Ethel Merman, and then Stephen Sondheim’s “Company”, again with Bennett’s choreography, followed by a tour of Bernstein’s “On the Town”.

Other work also included the odd film, television work and more touring work (“Sweet Charity” and “Annie Get Your Gun”) plus the Broadway stage premiere of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “State Fair”, and London concerts of Cole Porter’s “Can Can” and Sondheim’s “Follies”. However, Donna McKechnie will always be remembered for her role as Cassie in “A Chorus Line”, the Marvin Hamlisch/Edward Kleban musical choreographed by Michael Bennett, a show that still holds the record as the longest running US musical on Broadway. Donna won several awards including the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.

So, it’s been a good life for any performer and one that Donna McKechnie tells with wit and not a little black humour. Born in Pontiac, Michigan, which she says is “like living in the black and white sections of “The Wizard of Oz””, she pursued her career as a dancer because she had seen all those glamorous ladies singing and dancing in the movies of the 1940s and 1950s, the cue for her medley of numbers such as Debbie Reynolds singing ‘Good Morning’, Rita Hayworth and ‘Put the Blame on Mame’, Marilyn Monroe essaying ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, Judy Garland singing ‘Get Happy’ and Doris Day as Ruth Etting singing ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ and ‘Ten Cents a Dance’.

Donna reveals that she wanted to grow up and be like Doris Day. Well, it paid off, although along the way things may not have been as great or as easy as her opening number might have suggested, namely ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’. The down side of life is also expressed in her singing ‘The Lies of Handsome Men’ which comes across as particularly poignant. The unsettling nature of auditions is encapsulated in ‘Will He Like Me?’ from “She Loves Me” and ‘Lovely’ from “A Funny Thing Happened…”, but then comes “Company” and another featured dance-number as well as a song in a trio singing ‘You Could Drive a Person Crazy’ which she recreates at Pizza on the Park with great humour, a good deal of panache and all the movements as well.

‘The Music and the Mirror’ was her award-winning number from “A Chorus Line”, and it demonstrates the extraordinary range of her vocal prowess. She even sings the first rather rangy version of the number that was subsequently dropped. Being a dancer Donna uses her natural body language by going into a dance routine during a number or using gesture and mime to further express herself. She is also excellent at taking the audience into her confidence. Her between-numbers chat is just right. Should she ever – and heaven forefend that she ever does – stop singing and dancing (after all she has already conquered arthritis) Donna would make a very good stand-up comedian. She has a confident air and a quick wit, and both are very appealing indeed.

A natural for the songs of Sondheim (apart from “Company”, she also choreographed the “Sondheim: A Musical Tribute” concert and has played in “Follies” several times) she executes perfect versions of ‘So Many People’ from “Saturday Night”, and ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ and ‘I’m Still Here’ from “Follies”. For the rest of her well-structured programme in which she is accompanied by the ever-sympathetic and wholly supportive Nathan Martin on piano, Donna includes such classics as ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ from “State Fair”, ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ from “Pal Joey” and ‘Where Am I Going?’ from “Sweet Charity”. A bonus is a song called ‘Put Down Your Cell Phone’, which hilariously says it all about our current compulsive obsession with technology, while an encore of ‘Lucky To Be Me’ from “On the Town” proves a fitting finale to an enjoyable evening that is both a moving and a fun time for all.

  • Donna McKechnie is at Pizza on the Park, 11 Knightsbridge, London SW1 until Saturday 24 October 2009
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 8.30 p.m., doors open from 7
  • Tickets at £25.00: 08456 027 017
  • Pizza on the Park

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