Donna McKechnie Performs 'Same Place, Another Time' at Olney Theatre Center

Donna McKechnie
Donna McKechnie

The title and the occasion has déjà vu written all over it.

Here’s Donna McKechnie, a Tony Award winner for playing the star-making role of Cassie in the original Broadway production of Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line.” She performs in her one-woman cabaret piece “Same Place, Another Time”, at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1 on the historic stage of the Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Md.

Not coincidentally, the Olney Theatre Center’s production of “A Chorus Line” (extended through Sept. 8) was also playing at the center. Same place, another time, indeed.

McKechnie never performed the role of Cassie in the Washington area, but she was at the Kennedy Center for a production of “State Fair” in 1996 and at the National Theatre starring in the dramatic opening of a Broadway bound revival of Bob Fosse’s “Sweet Charity” in 1987.

She had come in with “Same Place, Another Time” from San Francisco, bringing with her ménage of songs, and personal story telling. It was her way of resurrecting the 1970s, when her star shone brightest. For, indeed, “A Chorus Line” was a “singular sensation,” as was she. This was New York, disco, the Hustle, and Broadway was still some leftover part of its own self. It was where you wanted to end up as a dancer, a star, and your name in lights.

Jim Croce’s music is here, a disco version of “Where or When”, a quintessential New York song, and songs from Broadway shows of the time. Which was quite a time.

“It’s an affectionate tribute to that time, the people I worked with—especially someone like Marvin Hamlisch, whom I really miss, because we both started out way back when in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” McKenhnie said. Hamlisch, who was the NSO Symphony Pops Director, passed away last year.

When she was in town for “State Fair” in 1996, playing a glamour queen performer plying her art at state fairs, she remembered exactly what happened. Cassie won her a Tony, got her on the cover of Newsweek, and made her a star. She also ended up marrying Michael Bennett in a whirlwind of change and the bright kiss of fame.

“When I came to New York I wanted to be a ballet dancer,” she said. “I kind of scoffed at musicals until I learned better, that there was this rich history and tradition of music, drama, theater and dancing. It took me a while but then “Chorus Line” came along and it changed everything.”

“That was my life on that stage,” McKechnie said. “That was a unique musical. There had never been anything like it.”

Back then, she admired and wanted to be like the dancing divas Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon. “That’s what you did, you admired them and picked up elements of them, and create your own style, and I was there, right there, and when it finally happened, it was over.”

More or less, Broadway, in the thrall of other genres that had little room for chorus lines or dancers, had stopped doing shows like that.

Irving Berlin will be heard, and stories, and “Time in a Bottle”. “God, I love that song,” McKechnie said.

“Same Place, Another Time” was also performed in 54 Below, a New York Club now in the basement of the building that used to be Studio 54. Talk about the ‘70s.

McKechnie has kept busy with concert work, singing in clubs, choreographing and writing, working in another time. With the proximity of “A Chorus Line” on stage as she preps for her performance Sunday, you can’t help but think of different places.

We both remembered the night of Sept. 23, 1987. “Sweet Charity” was a revival of one of Fosse’s inimically stylized, brash, brassy hits with his signature style. McKechnie was the star as a kind of dime a dance girl. A Broadway wannabe singing and dancing in high style biting songs like “Big Spender”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now. “He spent a lot of time rehearsing us, working with us, we worked like the devil leading up to that night,” she remembered.

Outside, Fosse, the creator of “Chicago” and “Dancin’”, and film director of “Cabaret” and the astounding “All That Jazz”, was on his way to the National Theatre with his ex-wife Gwen Verdon when he collapsed on the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue and died of a heart attack at George Washington University Hospital.

“None of us knew,” she said. “You know, nobody would tell us. It was opening night. Afterwards, I saw people looking upset, and someone came up to me and said ‘Sit Down’. I thought maybe the Broadway opening had been cancelled. I didn’t know. Everybody, me and everybody in the show was just stunned.”

It recalled the Broadway opening of “42nd Street” when producer David Merrick had kept the news of the death of director Gower Champion, who had died of cancer that morning, from the cast and everyone else until the show was over.

Broadway stories and lives, one and all, including the story of the 1970s, the singular sensations of the decade. Another time, different place.

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Tue, 29 Jul 2014 10:47:18 -0400

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