Review: ‘Donna McKechnie: Inside the Music’

"A Chorus Line" legend Donna McKechnie launches her show at the Colony with snippets of act-openers, "A Cockeyed Optimist," "Hello Dolly" and "It's a Small World," before landing on a song that defines her strength and her problem as a performer: "I Wanna Be Loved by You." Christopher Durang's witty narrative provides few surprises, and incidents with raw potential are skimmed over.

“A Chorus Line” legend Donna McKechnie launches her show at the Colony with snippets of act-openers, “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Hello Dolly” and “It’s a Small World,” before landing on a song that defines her strength and her problem as a performer: “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” Her need for love results in a chatty, breezily confessional portrait that never fails to be charming but rarely digs deep into bruising, messy emotions. Christopher Durang’s witty narrative provides few surprises, and incidents with raw potential are skimmed over. Even McKechnie’s ambition is soft-pedaled, and when she talks about her success in dealing with anger, the anger never seems to stem from the bleeding, exposed nerves of a woman confronted with “no father, no husband, no job and no home — a litany of loss.”

This sense of sweetness pervades “Movie Medley,” in which McKechnie breathlessly recalls how she escaped from a dysfunctional family background by immersing herself in film songs by Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds.

The show takes flight (aided by Thommie Walsh’s brisk direction) when she sings “Fred Astaire.” When she says, “You can take the rapper, I’ll take the tapper,” we feel it, and the scope of her love for dancing comes radiantly alive.

Equally winning is “Lies of Handsome Men,” with its wistful reflections on looking for love in all the wrong places. “Guess Who I Saw Today,” in which she spies a cheating lover, reinforces her aptitude for playing the victim.

McKechnie isn’t always pitch-perfect, but she catches the comedic nuances of intellectual vapidity with Sondheim’s “I’m Lovely” (“Isn’t it a shame, I can neither sew nor cook nor read or write my name”). Ed Kleban’s clever “Broadway Boogie Woogie” — which she used as an audition piece to get “Chorus Line” — is an on-target catalog of actor frustrations.

McKechnie clearly knows this turf and gives it reality. These numbers are played with proper Broadway uplift by a tight three-man trio on piano, bass and drums.

As she travels down memory lane, the story of her marriage to Michael Bennett is covered, but details offer no in-depth clues about why they were attracted to each other, what their life together was like and why they separated.

Her acting here is too surface, more self-conscious commentary than suffering. A promising audition segment, where she faces hard-boiled Frank Loesser and neurotic Bob Fosse, yields only cliched soundbites. Even when she talks of being down, she doesn’t project desperation, just pluckiness and a game spirit.

The one unforgettable issue dealt with is the dancer’s arthritis, and this section — affectingly staged by Walsh, an original “Chorus Line” cast member — has nightmarish power. Final anecdote, in which Marvin Hamlisch, composer of “Chorus Line,” hands her an unsingably rangy melody, allows McKechnie’s sense of humor free rein.

Donna McKechnie: Inside the Music

Colony Theater; 276 seats; $32 top

Production

A Colony Theater Co. presentation of a musical play by Christopher Durang, adapted from original material by Donna McKechnie. Director, Thommie Walsh.

Creative

Sets, Lawrence Miller; lighting, Robert L. Smith; costumes, Scott A. Lane; sound, Drew Dalzell; musical direction, Tom Griffin; choreography, Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Donna McKechnie, Walsh; production stage manager, Conwell Sellars Worthington III. Opened, reviewed April 12, 2003; runs through May 11. Running time, 2 HOURS.
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