Donna McKechnie
Donna McKechnie
The stage at Arci's Place has been enlarged. That seems entirely fitting, because the entertainer who stands upon it until August 11 looms large in the hearts of musical theater fans. We're speaking of Donna McKechnie, Tony Award-winner for A Chorus Line, who has come back to New York to perform her autobiographical club act My Musical Comedy Life.

The practical reason for the increase of the performing space at Arci's is that McKechnie does a considerable amount of dancing in this show; that's something you don't see often in the clubs, so it's a treat right from the start. McKechnie is the kind of triple-threat singer-dancer-actress who really knocks herself out to entertain. She holds nothing back. All of her talent, as well as the inside of her soul, are on display here.

There is nothing cool or reserved about this show; it's an emotional experience for the star and for the audience. And what an audience this much-beloved entertainer draws! On opening night, Liza Minnelli was ringside. So was Thommie Walsh, one of McKechnie's original castmates from A Chorus Line. Karen Mason, soon to star on Broadway in Mamma Mia!, was also present. You can expect, that on most nights during this run of performances, other showbiz luminaries will be on hand; after all, McKechnie worked with such legends of Broadway as Frank Loesser, Michael Bennett, Stephen Sondheim, and Gwen Verdon.

Best known as Cassie in A Chorus Line, McKechnie's journey to that triumph is part of her act. She also covers the years that followed, which included a battle with crippling arthritis. In a segment dealing with the early, difficult part of her life, she talks about how she and her mother escaped at the movies. With the expressive pianist Phillip Fortenberry as her musical director, McKechnie gracefully segues into a terrific set piece built around Jerry Herman's "Just Go To the Movies" (from A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine). During the song, she slides into riffs on Doris Day, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland (that was something to see with Liza in the audience!), and Debbie Reynolds. If McKechnie is comparable to any of these performers, it might actually be Reynolds, who displays the same fervor to entertain at almost any cost.

The nature of McKechnie's show is, in fact, her own nature. The show is ostensibly about her life and career, but what it's really about is Donna McKechnie's personality, and that's what makes it so compelling. If it were just an evening of "then I got this job and sang that song," it would be nice, but it wouldn't add up to that intimate thing we call cabaret. McKechnie doesn't just share her emotions; she whips them up into a big soufflé of song, dance, and cleverly written patter, then serves them up on the silver platter of her talent. It doesn't matter that her voice is far from world-class, because she acts the lyrics from within. You know she's feeling what she's singing. And it doesn't matter that her best dancing days are behind her, because she still has fire within her when those feet hit the stage.

Perhaps in an attempt to cover lots of ground in this show, McKechnie tends to offer little bits of songs rather than full versions. Ordinarily, that's annoying, but she sidesteps the problem by using these songbytes as setups to spin a few dance steps or to launch into genuinely engaging anecdotes. She talks about meeting Fred Astaire, and sings "Astaire" (Callaway/Robbins). She talks about her career climb, and sings (and dances) "Turkey-Lurkey Time" from Promises, Promises (Bacharach/David). Most affectingly of all, she talks about meeting Michael Bennett as a fellow dancer on the TV show Hullabaloo, a story that eventually culminates in her rendition of "The Music and the Mirror" from A Chorus Line (Hamlisch/Kleban) at the end of the show. By the time she gets to her signature number, you understand why it's so right for her: It's a song about a person's absolute, undeniable need to perform.