By Ron Fassler
Two of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1970s were inarguably Annie and A Chorus Line. Classics of their individual forms (one a sterling example of the great book musical, the other of the concept musical par excellence), each starred a performer who has never stopped working all these years later, continually impressing audiences in show after show with their prodigious talents. At Feinstein’s/54 Below, in what was a three-night engagement, Andrea McArdle and Donna McKechnie celebrated the songs of Stephen Sondheim and Marvin Hamlisch in a well-polished show that they have been traveling with for some time. And though I have seen each of them separately in concert on the 54 Below stage, this was my first opportunity to experience them together in a charmingly executed cabaret act that is pure entertainment.
In spite of other achievements, both will forever be aligned with the above-mentioned musicals. Andrea McArdle’s Broadway debut as the diminutive and spunky Little Orphan Annie was a triumph. Though she lost the Tony Award to her over-the-top co-star, the brilliant comedienne that was the late Dorothy Louden, it must be noted that McArdle’s performance was also pitch-perfect. I will never forget seeing McArdle and the entire original cast at the height of Annie’s popularity, marveling at the precocious thirteen-year old’s poise, comic timing and astonishing singing voice. On Broadway numerous times since, she has also worked tirelessly over the years in regional theatre (even essaying Louden’s role as Miss Hannigan more than once). Utilizing the concert stage as a way to show off her exquisite pipes and enormous charm is a definite treat (here is my review of her solo outing from this past June at Feinstein’s/54 Below https://www.theaterpizzazz.com/an-evening-with-andrea-mcardle/).
Donna McKechnie is simply a legend. Having made her Broadway debut in the chorus of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying fifty-eight years ago next month (!), she is still as youthful and glamorous as ever. There will always be something of the chorus girl about her; the way she moves, her dazzling smile and a loose and carefree quality that lights up any stage. The muse of the peerless director and choreographer Michael Bennett, McKechnie brings with her a history of some of the most important musicals of the twentieth century in which she took part. In addition to How to Succeed, she created roles in Promises, Promises, Company and, of course, Cassie in A Chorus Line, based upon her own life as a dancer and unique relationship with Bennett. She also gave a beautifully modulated performance as Sally in Follies at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey back in 1998, that thankfully was preserved on a two-disc CD that, if you don’t know about, is well worth a listen.
While watching these two wondrous theatre creatures do their thing, it came as something of a shock when McArdle revealed that of the two of them, she’s the one who is a grandmother. I mean… come on! It was significant that “Broadway Baby” was the first solo McArdle sang, not only because she was one, but because it offered us a chance to hear that one-of-a-kind belt of hers. And when one of the great “Night Music” waltzes began, and McKechnie slithered across the stage gesturing with her arms, it was transporting to seeing her move with such grace and aplomb. When the music morphed into the intro to “Send in the Clowns,” McKechnie delivered a poignant version of the song that was delicate and heartfelt.
Mention must also be made of the excellent ensemble of musicians led by musical director Steve Marzullo. Larry Lelli on drums and the bass cello of Mary Ann McSweeney made for a sensational sound.
Not only are these two theatre treasures endearing, they are enduring. Age is irrelevant when talent is the key. This notion was further brought home when I turned around at the end of the show to find Marilyn Maye seated behind me. Still going strong at ninety-one, she will be at Feinstein’s/54 Below in October 17th through the 26th. When it comes to the artistic souls of either Marilyn, Donna or Andrea, you may not believe it… but time stands still.