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BWW Reviews: Donna McKechnie Conjures the Ghosts of Studio 54 and the '70s Disco Era at 54 Below


Cabaret Review by Stephen Hanks

If the creative brain trust of the popular new nightclub 54 Below had been looking for a way to finally pay some kind of homage to its grandparent, the legendary Studio 54, since the new club opened last June, it found the perfect candidate in Donna McKechnie. The legendary Broadway performer was not only one of the many glamorous stars who were part of the borderline decadent disco scene during Studio 54's heyday in the late '70s, her first apartment in New York after she got to the Apple from Pontiac, Michigan was on the same street. Only a year removed from winning a Best Actress Tony for the role of Cassie in A Chorus Line when the club opened in 1977, McKechnie was certainly one of the Dancing Queens of New York ("a veritable dump in those days, except for Studio 54," she observed) and was experiencing what the late Peter Allen sang about in his song "Continental American."

Nights would end at 6 AM
You sleep all day
And then start dancing again
The first to see the end
Manhattan pioneers

It may be more than 50 years since the 72-year-old McKechnie made her Broadway debut in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, but she seemed as nervous as an ingenue--in a good way--on the opening night of her new cabaret show Same Place-Another Time. Entering in a sparkly black blouse over a black skirt, and boogieing to the classic disco strains of "Do the Hustle," McKechnie and Musical Director/Pianist John McDaniel (leading a five-piece band) turned her opening number into a mashup with Rodgers and Hart's "Where or When" and a few bars of "Native New Yorker" thrown in just to keep up the funky disco flavor. During the appreciative audience applause, McKechnie made a visual beeline for fellow veteran Broadway actor/dancer Lee Roy Reams, as if drawing on her friend's energy for support.

Within a 12-song set that was more Stephen Sondheim than Donna Summer, McKechnie fashioned that almost universal storyline about being a young, struggling actress/dancer from the sticks who is experiencing the vagaries of the big city, in this case during the drug, sex, and Rock n' Roll-fueled mid-'70s. She opened up about the lovers who came and went (including her marriage and divorce to her Chorus Line director/choreographer Michael Bennett), her struggle to overcome arthritis, and her search for inner peace. "My longest and most compelling relationship," she admitted, "is with New York City."

While McKechnie's vocals may not be as solidly consistent or as powerful as when she was in her prime, she is still girl-next-door adorable, still moves around a stage like the polished dancer she is, and still possesses the acting chops to put over any song. She passionately expressed her feelings about the city and her sometimes tempestuous life with a solid rendition of Sondheim's "What More Do I Need?" (which I've heard sung in cabaret shows so many times lately, I'm going to make it my own personal drinking game), a slinky, sexy, turn on Harold Arlen's "The Morning After," a whimsical take on Portia Nelson's "Hate/Love New York," a heartfelt medley of "Moving Out Today" with "Where Do I Start," a nostalgic and sensitive version of Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," and she turned intensely emotional on Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban's "At the Ballet," from A Chorus Line. For her encore, she neatly tied the whole show and her personal story together with Sondheim's "With So Little to Be Sure Of," from Anyone Can Whistle.

One thing we can all be sure of: Now matter what her age, Donna McKechnie will always be a Dancing Queen.

Photo by Walter McBride

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