By Debra P. Cronin   Published Jul 22, 2002 at 5:24 AM

Stepping Out Productions presented Broadway legend and Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie this past weekend, performing her own very personal production of "My Musical Comedy Life," as part of its second annual Cabaret Artist Series at the Stackner Cabaret.

McKechnie is known as "the great Broadway gypsy." She has also been called "the one singular sensation," and, by the end of her first number, this audience, whether previously familiar with the artist or not, appeared to be in total agreement.

Barry Levitt, McKechnie's guest pianist, kicked off the evening with a medley of both the very familiar and those ever so fleeting show tunes. McKechnie's voice joined in from offstage when Levitt got around to opening of Everything's Coming Up Roses from Gypsy. When McKechnie finally walked out onto the stage, she quickly warmed the room with her charming ways that included girlish twirls, womanly poise, a veteran trouper's timing and ease, as well as tales of wonder and irony, plenty of flying perspiration, and funny stories about flying perspiration.

McKechnie painted a picture of the glamorous life a Broadway performer, who once danced with Fred Astaire under the very sweetest of circumstances. The story of her musical life was also punctuated with trying times when work was scarce or when health problems set in.

Once, she told us, she heard her name used an answer to a "Who was" question on Jeopardy. On another occasion, a casting call went out that said they were looking for a "Donna McKechnie-type," and though she tried out, she didn't get the part.


McKechnie credits the late great choreographer Bob Fosse, with having faith in her and helping her to come back after a debilitating bout with arthritis, by casting her as the lead in his last production of Sweet Charity. She treated the rapt Stackner audience to two songs and dance numbers from "Sweet Charity," "Where Am I Going" and "If They Could See Me Now."

McKechnie explained how much of her own inspiration, and many of her dance lessons, came from famous dancer Gwen Verdon, ex-wife of Fosse. Verdon, McKechnie explained, was in her seventies at the time, but could still kick up "to there." A few numbers later, McKechnie showed us that she was still kicking up "to there" herself. "To there," being ankle about on level with her nose.

McKechnie is best known for being the inspiration for, and originating the role of Cassie in the landmark musical, "A Chorus Line," for which she won her Tony for Best Performance in a Broadway Musical in 1976. A quick search on the Web will tell you that many are also familiar with her from other work, which included everything from "Dark Shadows," a campy daytime soap opera based on a vampire saga, that ran in the late '60s, to appearances on "Cheers," to extensive Broadway and touring credits that included "A Little Night Music," "Gypsy," "Follies," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Can Can," "Annie Warbucks" and more.

McKechnie saved her most famous and emotional number, "The Music and The Mirror," from "A Chorus Line," for last. She brought the audience to its feet, and she could have kept us longer, but she graciously thanked us and told us she wouldn't mind coming back for Stepping Out Productions' third annual Cabaret Artist Series in 2003. We wouldn't mind either, and Stepping Out Productions does want to know who the audience wants to see again.

Stepping Out Productions' Cabaret Artist Series has two more offerings this season: "John Barrowman: Reflections from Broadway," August 2-3, and Liz Callaway's "The Beat Goes On," August 16t-17. All performances are at the Stackner Cabaret, The Milwaukee Center, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets and further information, please contact The Milwaukee Rep Box Office at (414) 224-9490.