BWW Review: ANDREA MCARDLE AND DONNA MCKECHNIE CELEBRATE SONDHEIM AND HAMLISCH Brings Down the House at 54 Below
Last week Andrea McArdle and Donna McKechnie brought an encore performance of their Sondheim/Hamlisch show to Feinstein's/54 Below, and you can bet your bottom dollar this writer was on hand to catch the show he was so miffed about missing last January. See, I have learned how to prioritize and, kids, I'm telling you right now, when the legends are playing live, go see the legends, live; and while I've seen both Ms. McKechnie and Ms. McArdle playing roles, I can never resist seeing them as themselves, so luminous and engaging are they, each and every time they play.
When at first you see the title of the show "Andrea McArdle and Donna McKechnie Celebrate Sondheim and Hamlisch" you think, well of course, isn't that perfect, and how marvelous, because Ms. McKechnie was in the original Broadway cast of Company and the famous Papermill Playhouse Follies, to say nothing of her historic turn in A Chorus Line; and Ms. McArdle was in ... well, she wasn't in a Sondheim musical or a Hamlisch musical... or so it would seem, at first blush. Further research indicates that Ms. McArdle has indeed played Mama Rose in Gypsy and Sonia Walsk in They're Playing Our Song. Tada! Connection.
Actually, connection to the composers doesn't matter because the connection between the Ladies is what makes this show special enough to hire a sitter, take a night off, plunk down the money for a ticket, dinner, and drinks. These aren't just Broadway legends, they're damn fine entertainers who look like a couple of old friends having a grand time, fitting because one of the songs in their opening mashup is the Sondheim classic "Old Friend" and when they sing the song to each other, you can see the real affection they have for one another. In fact, any time the women are on stage together during the evening is a special time, special enough to wish that there was more of it.
The evening is broken up into two parts, with Sondheim coming first and Hamlisch rounding out the show; and while there is a little banter between the two stars, much of the Sondheim section is conducted as an ongoing montage, with one lady leaving the stage as the other comes on to sing her solo (I hope they were wearing their Fitbits because they surely got in a lot of steps). And, oh, what glorious solos. To hear Andrea McArdle sing "Not a Day Goes By" or "Being Alive" is to be in a state of abject bliss, and to hear Donna McKechnie recreate her heartbreaking performance in Follies, mashing up "Don't Look at Me" and "In Buddy's Eyes" is to see a master class in musical theater acting. You don't really know how hard it is to act for the musical theater until you see someone do it flawlessly, and the memories brought back by McKechnie's mashup from Follies was a reminder of how brilliant she was in the role.
Follies is not the only Sondheim show Ms. McKechnie did, and it was a lot of fun to hear her perform musical director Steve Marzullo's arrangement for one of "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," but when the dancer supreme took to the stage for even 15 seconds of "Tick Tock" every Broadway aficionado just about came out of their seat, settling back in to hear the trivia and personal tales of working with Sondheim and Prince on the groundbreaking Company. It was a truly special moment in the show.
Equally special, though, is getting to hear Andrea McArdle sing the songs from the roles we all wish she would play. This is where cabaret really delivers for audiences. Both women refer to themselves in the show as women of a certain age - and we've all heard how show business treats women of a certain age. They need jobs. There are roles out there that they deserve to play, roles that people deserve to see them do. And while Andrea McArdle has played Mama Rose in regional theater, she hasn't played Phyllis Rogers Stone, so when she sings "Could I Leave You" on a nightclub stage, she gets to sample a juicy role and we get to see what she would do with it, were she to ever play it. It's a win for everyone. When she brings her inimitable sound to "Everybody Says Don't" (the male song in Anyone Can Whistle), we all get a thrill - one hopes she gets it too.
The really exciting part of the Sondheim section of the show, for this writer, was when the ladies were together for a feminist version of "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" because they are both so, So, SO funny. Watching them do this number conjured up what joy it would be to see them do a gender-fluid "By The Sea" or "A Little Priest" or how about a feminist "Agony" or "Come Play Wiz Me" ... admit it, you like the idea, too.
Segueing from Sondheim into Hamlisch was a complete change in pace and mood, and rightly so. Hamlisch was all about feelings and fun, and though everyone loves Sondheim, his songs come with baggage, expectations, assumptions. Marvin Hamlisch is a different breed of cat, and the divas dove right in for just some fun with the Lesley Gore pop song Hamlisch penned "Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows," proving again that their combined talents and sisterhood are a lethal weapon of charm and delight. Even though Hamlisch was responsible for some great musical theater (some would argue the greatest), there is a definite slant toward popular music, giving Misses McKechnie and McArdle a chance to stray away from show tunes with their versions of "Through the Eyes of Love" and "The Way We Were" - naturally with some fun mem'ries of their own. For this writer, this segment is when the show came alive because Andrea McArdle is a natural raconteur and any time she can tell a story about being the "Belle as old as time" or share her astonishing Carol Channing impression, I want to be in the room, to say nothing of the thrill that comes with Donna McKechnie even saying the words "A Chorus Line," let alone singing three (THREE!) songs from the show that won her the Tony award. Then, just when you think the embarrassment of riches isn't enough, Ms. McKechnie does a few of the dance moves from "The Music and The Mirror," and, oh, those willowy arms. Heaven in a nightclub.
This is what cabaret is for. Andrea McArdle won't ever actually play Diana Morales, but nightclub audiences can hear her sing "Nothing"; Donna McKechnie won't play Cassie Ferguson again, but cabaret crowds can get a load of "The Music and The Mirror" being sung (in the original key!) by the woman for whom it was written. This is why nightclub owners book cabaret shows, why artists create club acts and why audiences show up, time and again, to see the greats perform in intimate settings like 54 Below.
Because shows like this aren't just a priority, they are a privilege.