By Marilyn Lester . . .

Broadway star Donna McKechnie certainly makes a case for agelessness. In a career that began in 1961 as a dancer in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, she’s never stopped working (pandemic aside), picking up 1976 Tony, Drama Desk and Theater World awards along the way for her performance in A Chorus Line. In Take Me to the World: The Songs of Stephen Sondheim, a reprise at 54 Below, McKechnie constructed a heartfelt, informative and intensely personal and loving memoir of Sondheim—firing on all the cylinders that have made her a renowned triple threat through the years.

Beginning with a rousing drum introduction to “I’ve Got You to Lean On” (Anyone Can Whistle) by Ray Marchica, McKechnie disclosed she’s been quoting the lyrics of Sondheim since 1959 as “a guide to living.” With the body of songs for this show primarily from Anyone Can Whistle, Company and Follies, McKechnie wore her heart on her sleeve, easily winning the hearts of a sold-out room full of adoring friends and fans. With the eponymous “Anyone Can Whistle,” disclosed as Sondheim’s own personal favorite tune, McKechnie revealed herself as an appealingly gentle, charming and refreshingly honest soul. Plus, there was humor—always a positive element that adds spice to any show. In telling of a 1990 encounter with the now legendary Dame Angela Lansbury, for instance, the sweetly self-deprecating McKechnie told of her complex plans for choreographing the Dame in a particular tribute concert. Lansbury had other ideas. McKechnie yielded gracefully, thinking to herself “I think I’ll just stand here and sing.” It was a great lesson, she admitted.

It was in the mid 1960s, however, that McKechnie began a professional and personal relationship with Stephen Sondheim (who died in November 2022 at age 91). She landed the role of Hero in the national tour of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and from that show she sang “I’m Lovely.” By 1970, director-choreographer Michael Bennett showcased McKechnie in the original Broadway production of Company as Kathy. She later reprised the role in Los Angeles and London. From Company, McKechnie sang two familiar favorites, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and a dramatic, 11 o’clock number-style “Being Alive.” Reminiscence about the show, and especially about “her Bobby,” Dean Jones, who exited the Broadway production suddenly, silently and mysteriously, was tender and poignant.

The bulk of McKechnie’s set was from Follies, which included a dance interlude—her primary, core talent even as a triple threat. McKechnie showed she still has the moves, full of energy and grace. With stories about being cast as Sally Plummer for the 1996 production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, she delivered “Pleasant Little Kingdom,” cut from Follies, and another showstopper, a wrenching “Losing My Mind.” Salted into Take Me to the World: The Songs of Stephen Sondheim were a few other classic Sondheim numbers from other shows, including “Live Alone and Like It.” This particular tune was one of five written for the film Dick Tracy. Not all of his material was used in the movie but appeared on stage later in the 1999 Broadway revue, Putting It Together. Regionally,McKechnie played Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. Her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” hit another note of interpretive depth, giving meaning to a song that’s been oft sung by very many performers over the years with varying degrees of gravitas.

Ending with “Take Me to the World” (Evening Primrose), McKechnie put the stamp on a heartwarming, beautiful show in which the song’s lyric “you’re the one I lean on” had tremendous resonance and meaning. Along with the superlative and nuanced drumming of Marchica, bassist Ray Kilday added plenty of texture with his playing, which included delicate bowing. At the keys, the always uber-talented and creative music director, Ian Herman, was in prime orchestral mode, providing lush and lyrical accompaniment that perfectly supported McKechnie’s vocals. The complex brilliance of Stephen Sondheim’s music isn’t always easy to sing or play, so hats off to McKechnie and company for acing this beautifully curated set of tunes.