After about four decades in showbiz, and 25 years after capturing a Tony for “A Chorus Line,” Donna McKechnie has still got stars in her eyes. They’re glinting away for all to see at Arci’s Place, where she’s performing her sweet and appealing pocketsized autobiography in song and dance, in preparation for an expected theatrical run elsewhere.
A small stage has been built for the show at the Park Avenue South restaurant and cabaret space, but it’s not nearly big enough to contain McKechnie’s embracing charm and relentless energy. Arms shooting skyward to emphasize a climax, her still shapely legs gobbling up the floor as she performs distilled versions of some of her signature numbers, McKechnie threatens to devour the whole place with her endearing need to entertain.
The show describes an archetypal arc: Little girl from the Midwest feeds on Hollywood fantasies, runs away to join the circus of showbiz, discovers its thrills as well as its illusions, and suffers some heartbreak along the way (two divorces and arthritis). But its details remind us that similar stories aren’t going to have the same touchstones much longer: McKechnie became a Broadway gypsy just as the biz entered its decline in the 1960s as a central force in American culture.
But McKechnie is a silver-lining kind of girl: The show’s cheery note is struck with the opening number, a rousing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” And yet she has the savvy to poke fun at her own naturally beaming personality. “Am I chipper enough?” she asks in her madly chipper way. (Christopher Durang has reportedly shaped some of her amusing, self-deprecating patter.)
The greatest hits from shows she has performed in are all here: a bit of “A Secretary Is Not a Toy,” from her first Broadway gig in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”; a peppery “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” from “Company”; the soul-searching lament “Where Am I Going?,” from “Sweet Charity”; a moistly poignant “In Buddy’s Eyes,” from “Follies.”
Hers may not be the most distinctive or expressive of voices, but it’s polished and well-trained and she uses it well: focusing on the dramatic essence of each song rather than shoehorning them all into the same formula.
McKechnie still moves with precision and grace, too, although the show is not ideally housed in such a small space and you sense a bit of mild frustration at the confines of her stage — and of the current Broadway environment, which doesn’t have much call anymore for this kind of performer.
Years of training and experience have trained her to fill expansive spaces; she’s best of all when she’s able to let loose, radiating the kind of innocent joy in performing that all too rarely comes across the footlights anymore.