AISLE SAY Special Feature


By Frank Evans

I arranged for a Friday morning conference call with Broadway stars Donna McKechnie and Karen Mason. Both ladies are doing one woman shows at Arci's, Manhattan's most audience- and performer-friendly cabaret to open in years. Mason runs through July 22 and McKechnie takes over on the 24th, her act extended an additional week until August 11.

Donna McKechnie may be best known for creating the role of Cassie in "A Chorus Line" which won her a Best Actress Tony. She's worked with the great choreographer/directors: Michael Bennett (to whom she was married) in "Promises, Promises," "Company," and "A Chorus Line,"and Bob Fosse in "How to Succeed...," as well as his final work when he directed her as "Sweet Charity." More recently, she won an Astaire Award for her work in Broadway's "State Fair" and played Sally in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of "Follies" -- which she followed up most recently with a legit one-woman show, Inside the Music. [See Claudia Perry's Aisle Say (Philadephia) review -- editor.] She has recorded a dozen cast albums including her Broadway and West End work as well as the soundtrack of Lerner and Loewe's "Little Prince."

Karen Mason is equally at home on cabaret and legit stages. She won an Outer Critics Circle Award for her work in John Kander and Fred Ebb's "And The World Goes Round," played Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" both in Los Angeles and New York and played New York in "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" and "Torch Song Trilogy." Earlier this year, she played the Rosemary Clooney role in a stage version of "White Christmas" for the St. Louis Municipal Opera in a production which may transfer to London. She has recorded three solo CDs as well as original cast albums and studio recreations, including the first complete recording of "Wonderful Town."

FRANK EVANS: You both have new musicals opening right after your engagements at Arci's.

DONNA McKECHNIE: These wonderful people up at the White Barn Theatre are developing a project called "Sheba," a musical adaptation "Come Back Little Sheba, the William Inge play. Lee Goldsmith did the book and lyrics and Clinton Ballard Jr. did the music and it's really wonderful...

KAREN MASON: It's a great idea for a musical.

McKECHNIE: I love the psychology of the play and the gentleness of it. It's a study of a married couple and the effect a young woman has on their relationship. In our modern terminology, Doc and Lola are co-dependent, a word that wasn't used when William Inge wrote the play. It's not black and white; it's complicated and a wonderful book for a musical. Then I've got "Mack and Mabel" coming up in January, [or at least that's what] they keep saying, so…I'm just having a great time being in New York. This is the first time I've been here for this length of time in quite a while. I've been touring and working in London and I'm just having a great New York experience.

MASON: Where is the White Barn?

EVANS: Westport [Connecticut].

McKECHNIE: I developed my one woman show "Inside The Music" there years ago because Lucille Lortel was generous enough to ask me. It has an incredible history. Back then I think it was their 47th season. Katherine Hepburn got her start there. See, I do go on. I'm very chatty. You have to stop me... [Laughter]

MASON You must be on your second cup of coffee. [Laughter]

EVANS I'm gonna move to Karen and "Mama Mia."

MASON: Donna, could you answer this for me? I've only had one. [Laughter.] Like Donna, I'm really looking forward to being home. Traveling is a great gift in this business but there are times when you need a break from packing and unpacking and I'm really looking forward to this opportunity of being in one place. We start previews October 5th and open October 18th and I told my husband that after about five months he's gonna start getting really bored with having me there– [Laughter] –wondering if he'll start packing my suitcase for me and start sending me on little trips. [Laughter] The biggest cynics go in saying they're not gonna like it and they walk out saying it's a great time. They took the catalogue of Abba and the storyline is really complex, considering these were songs that were kind of light and when I read the script I thought this really can work.

EVANS: Is this "Buena Sera, Mrs. Campbell?"

MASON: I can't answer that question.

EVANS: The film where Gina Lollobrigida

McKECHNIE: –see, he knows these things–

EVANS: –claims three different G.I.s fathered one child? [At one point] it was a musical starring Georgia Brown with a score by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane.

MASON: That's it.

McKECHNIE: Congratulations, Karen. Not bad being on Broadway.

MASON: I'm really looking forward to it. It's good to have all these projects...a wide variety of things. I think both of us are very've got the cabaret and the concerts...

McKECHNIE: There is something wonderful about going to work every night. I'm longing to be home. It's been a while.

EVANS: You both do an amazing amount of travel.

McKECHNIE: I'm like two people. I do love to travel...

MASON: Yes...

McKECHNIE: It's hard in this business to be "normal." It gives me the opportunity to have reunions with friends I've made over the years. So when I go to San Francisco, I have friends there I haven't seen since the last time. It's fun when you go to different areas, you find that fundamentally, audiences are all the same. It really does help my confidence a lot. But different regions have different sensibilities.

MASON: It really sharpens your skills when you're performing...

McKECHNIE: Especially when you have the opportunity to break the fourth wall–for a theatre performer, that's exhilarating. Playing Key West [laughter] is a lot different from [the rest of] Florida. [Laughter.] The Midwest audiences, Chicago, I rely on them for their honesty, but they can be conservative sometimes. They're honest. They don't over-react, they don't under-react.

MASON: I love Chicago. It's halfway between a real Midwest sensibility and a more East Coast sensibility.

EVANS: Are New York summer tourist audiences different from the rest of the year?

MASON: I gather you mean cabaret. Throughout the year, you're gonna get a mix because New York is such a tourist town, so you get a nice mix of home people and tourists and they're all gonna be interested in cabaret and they're all willing to pay their entertainment dollars and come and sit and see a live performance, something they wouldn't see in the town they live in.

McKECHNIE: Karen, you really started Arci's, didn't you?

MASON: Yes, I opened it.

McKECHNIE: The word of mouth is so good about the room, about the food...

MASON: They know they're gonna be comfortable, they know they're going to have a good time.

McKECHNIE: John Miller–

MASON: –He's such a great host–

McKECHNIE: –Karen, thank you for paving the way so I can be there, too. [Laughter]

MASON: It's a beautiful cabaret and it's not so overpriced that people would hesitate coming and yet you do get a lot of bang for your entertainment buck. The consistency of the performers is high, and as Donna says, you get great meals.

McKECHNIE: Being known as a dancer also, I try to bring a little -- you know that space, two by four [laughter] -- I can't really dance there. So I do what I call "dance illusion."

MASON: That's what I've been doing for years, actually. [Laughter]

McKECHNIE: John, just today, which is the news of the day, said, "Well, if Donna wants to use more space, we'll just move the piano off the stage. And I said, well, that gives me four by four. That's a lot more. [Laughter] I thought that was so nice because he loses a table. It means I can really do "If My Friends Could See Me Now" with all the Bob Fosse choreography. I'm not gonna do "Music and the Mirror," but I can do "Turkey-Lurkey Time."

EVANS: Donna, do you wear a body mike?

McKECHNIE: Yes. That's another thing. He has to rent it. It's an added expense -- he's paying for my mike and losing a table. Of course, he's not paying me... [Laughter]

MASON: Check your paycheck. [Laughter]

EVANS: Tell everybody to buy an extra drink. [Laughter]

McKECHNIE: I have to move around. I vivify a lot of my story telling. I tell stories musically...

MASON: It's a great word.

McKECHNIE: What is?

MASON & EVANS: Vivify.

McKECHNIE: Oh! Thank you. I did a version of this show for one night in Los Angeles and the body mike wouldn't work -- it kept picking up police calls and taxicabs -- so I had to use a hand mike. It's was really hard to only have one arm. [Laughter]

EVANS: Can you be more specific about your shows? Donna, yours is autobiographical.

McKECHNIE: The show that I've been developing for the last five years ... Chris Durang is doing the text, Thommie Walsh is directing ... is called "Inside the Music." I'm only going to do a couple of numbers from it. I think there may be a future for it. In this show, at Arci's, "An Evening with..." I recreate -- there's a lot of intimacy -- I try to recreate shows and numbers I've done -- with the original Bob Fosse or Michael Bennett choreography -- and I tell stories on myself, musically. I pay tribute to Fosse and Bennett and Gwen Verdon, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, people who are gone now who I've been able to work with...and let the audience know what kind of legacy these people from musical theatre have left us.

EVANS: You both have a Bernstein connection. Donna, you have "On The Town," Karen, you have that incredible recording of "Wonderful Town." It's a tribute to the show and a tribute to Roz Russell. In the finale, there are notes you could obviously hit and you speak them, the way she did.

MASON: I think it was more out of frustration than anything. The keys are a little on the low side. During the recording I started crying because [laughing] everybody, Rebecca Luker and Ron Raines, were singing these beautiful, beautiful notes in their range and I'm [speaking in basso profundo] like "It's Love."

McKECHNIE: You did it in her keys?

MASON: Oh, yeah. They did the entire thing in her keys. They're singing [soprano:] "It's Love, It's Love" and I'm [even lower:] "It's Love." [Normal voice, laughing:] I was a little emotionally wrought.

EVANS: It doesn't come off that way...

MASON: The tears were there, Frank.

EVANS: About the Bernstein connection.

McKECHNIE: It was the revival [of" On The Town"], let's underscore that. [Laughter]

EVANS; Yes, we know you're not [the original Ivy Smith] Sono Osato [Mild laughter]

McKECHNIE:To work with Sondheim and Goldman on "Follies," to have the original writers there to keep working on the show. Bernstein was there for "On the Town," so supportive and enthusiastic. It sounds like name dropping, but it really is to honor them. It's what we do in theatre. We pass it on.

EVANS: About your show, Karen...

MASON: I worked with Brian Lasser for sixteen years. When we started, we just wanted to do a lot of great songs. Somebody said it was time for me to do a show of standards. The show is a wide variety. We do "Up on the Roof" into a song my husband [Paul Rolnick] wrote, which is a personal favorite of mine. Then we do "When the Sun Comes Out," "When In Rome," "Pick Yourself Up." We also do "Help!" into "Being Alive." This is a show I think I can do for a really long time. This combination of music make me very happy.

McKECHNIE: It sounds very personal.

MASON: The lyric to "When in Rome" is funny. But I thought nobody would buy me doing it. I'm way too perky Midwest. But when we got into the song, I started to enjoy that sexy, flirtatious thing.

When I do an evening of standards, I have to bring a modern sensibility to them. When people hear "It Had to be You," they're not hearing the same harmonics that were used in the accompaniment when it was written. A modern ear doesn't listen the same way. Every time we perform it, there's something new there. And even if it's a day when, say, I haven't been talking to my husband, I fall in love with him all over again.

MASON: You know, we both wore the same costumes for "Gypsy."


MASON: The ones that you wore in Cleveland. I did it in Sundance out in Utah.

McKECHNIE: What about that opening coat?

MASON That was the most...I loved it. I had such a ball doing it. I heard you were fabulous doing it.

McKECHNIE: I...don't know if I'd want to do it again. It was hard. If I did it again, I would know how to pace it. It wasn't the singing. It was all of that driving...getting emotional. It sent me back to voice lessons, which is good. I had to go back to learn how to breathe again. It scared me so much that I could wake up with a sore throat.

MASON: I was so in love with "Rose's Turn," I thought how can I get this in my cabaret show. [Laughter.] What was I thinking? Two shows Friday and Saturday. Never.

EVANS: Thank you both so much.

MASON & McKECHNIE: It's been a pleasure.

Arci's, 450 Park Avenue South, between 30th and 31st. Reservations: (212) 532-4370

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