Donna McKechnie: Inside the Music
You just don't want to give Donna McKechnie a bad review. She has such a cheerful disposition, she has such a joy in her dancing, she is so grateful to be able to dance after enduring crippling arthritis - you just want to love her. So what if she doesn't move like she did nearly thirty years ago? Who does? So what if her stage show, Inside the Music, feels like an overgrown cabaret act? It's still a pretty good cabaret act.
There is an interesting contradiction at work here. McKechnie opens the show with "Cockeyed Optimist," and it's true - she is one. McKechnie runs through her life story in the course of the quick two-hour show, but she frequently skims over the rough spots. She briefly mentions growing up in a dysfunctional family, but doesn't dwell on the pain of years of isolation. Instead, she tells us she escaped by going to the movies and uses her family life as a springboard into a lengthy movie music medley. McKechnie even tells us she's never been able to express anger, and instead dances and sings.
The irony here is that McKechnie's talents are much more suited to songs that are painful emotional expressions rather than the upbeat perky numbers she wants to sing. You can take or leave McKechnie's rendition of "I Wanna Be Loved By You" or even "If My Friends Could See Me Now," but she sincerely connects with the pain of the deceived lover in "Guess Who I Saw Today?" and her rendition of "In Buddy's Eyes" drips regret. McKechnie presents the image of an extremely chipper songstress, but when you get right down to it, it's the songs that tug on the heartstrings that she can really deliver.
Playwright Christopher Durang crafted the show based on McKechnie's original material, and the show has something of an unusual structure to it. Durang seems almost too concerned about avoiding applause breaks; too many songs are cut off before their end, or broken up by stories or (in some cases) other songs. It's frustrating; McKechnie could probably get more out of these songs if she could sing them straight through.
The second act is stronger than the first; it has more of a concept. McKechnie enters from the audience with a dance bag over her shoulder, as though attending an audition. She then runs through her theatrical history, discussing the roles she got and performing bits from them. The first time in the show that she really dances is, of all things, "Turkey Lurkey Time," and McKechnie really kicks it with the '60s-inspired dance steps. She is adorable performing "You Could Drive A Person Crazy," a song she originally introduced as part of a trio, and her cute staging gets laughs as she points out which lines were hers.
At the end of the second act, she comes downstage, sits on the steps, and finally opens up a little bit when she's talking about Michael Bennett and A Chorus Line. The room actually changes as soon as she mentions the show. A Chorus Line is such a unique part of theatre history, and McKechnie's part in it was so well-known, there's just an eagerness for the audience to hear her tell what it was like, and perform "The Music and The Mirror" again (which she does).
On the whole, Inside the Music isn't a particularly revealing biography, and its memorable songs are frequently unexpected ones. McKechnie has a good story to tell, and she shows a joy in its telling. Her enthusiasm is catching, and the audience leaves cheering McKechnie's successes and hoping she has more.
Donna McKechnie: Inside the Music continues weekends at the Colony Theatre in Burbank through May 11, 2003. For tickets, see www.colonytheatre.org or call (818) 558-7000.
The Colony Theatre Company; Barbara Beckley, Producing Director, presents the Los Angeles premiere of Donna McKechnie: Inside the Music. Text by Christopher Durang, adapted from original material by Donna McKechnie. Scenic Design by Lawrence Miller; Lighting Design by Robert L. Smith; Sound Design by Drew Dalzell; Costumes by Scott A. Lane; Marketing/Public Relations by David Elzer/Demand PR; Production Stage Manager Conwell Sellars Worthington III. Musical Direction by Tom Griffin; Choreography by Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Donna McKechnie & Thommie Walsh; Directed by Thommie Walsh.
Photo by Michael Lamont