Famous gypsy from 'A Chorus Line' launches a solo expedition

Timeless, ageless, and, at the moment, breathless - all these describe Donna McKechnie, whom most know simply as the classic Broadway gypsy dancer, Cassie, from the landmark musical "A Chorus Line."

The triple threat singer-dancer-actress has just finished performing her one-woman show, with which she is currently touring. Not unlike "A Chorus Line," which made her an international household name, this 90-minute solo act is highly personal and autobiographical. All the questions you might have about her life since those heady days a quarter of a century ago are answered.

In response to the first biggie: Can she still dance? Ms. McKechnie answers with the laugh of a seasoned pro. "I don't leap as high, and I don't do as many turns," she concedes, "but I'd like to think I've more than made up for that with the wisdom and experience I've gained along the way."

Watching the show, both these observations turn out to be true. Her spins are modest, as are her leaps. But the warmth she brings to the stage and the wry sageness of her observations about a life devoted to musical theater more than compensate.

Flashy technique is far easier to show off than one's soul, after all.

In an interview before the show, McKechnie described her single-minded passion for musical theater - and its consequences.

"I could make a better living if I made different choices," she says with a sigh. But she found her true love early in her career. "This is my destiny," she says.

"I realized I wanted to devote my life to the original book musical as an art form, one of the few original art forms we have in this country."

"Donna has the status of a theater legend," says Marcia Seligson, producing artistic director of Reprise! Broadway's Best, for whom McKechnie's Los Angeles appearance was a benefit.

"She's one of those people who become Broadway icons from their association with major projects that change the history of theater," adds Ms. Seligson. McKechnie is one of a dying breed, she says. "She's one of the last of those classic Broadway hoofers, like Gwen Verdon."

McKechnie, who now divides her time between teaching and touring, says that sharing the lessons of a hard-lived life has become one of her great passions.

Choreographer Bob Fosse, one of her most important mentors, put it most simply. "Keep working hard to be better, not just as a performer, but as a person," she says he told the opening night audience for "Sweet Charity" in Washington. "Don't worry about the results of the show, don't compete with each other. If you work with something and you know you can do it better, just do it."

Briefly married to the choreographer of "A Chorus Line," Michael Bennett, who died of AIDS, McKechnie says the musical theater world has changed as the result of losing so many important figures to that disease over the past decades.

"When we were doing 'Chorus Line,' we were making $50 a week for months," she says. But look what came out of it. "Theater history," she says. The musical about a group of aspiring dancers won numerous awards and ran on Broadway for 15 years.

Today, McKechnie says, there are fewer musical-theater pioneers. "It's all about big, commercial productions that will make lots of money - a lot of revivals, that sort of thing."

She decided to produce a show that would be an homage to the American musical. "I couldn't stand it when people would come up to me and say, do you dance anymore?" she says. "I always thought, well, of course I do. But not if they don't see me." She asked playwright Christopher Durang to help bring her personal story to life and choreographer Thommie Walsh staged the show.

"Longevity is another lesson I want to pass along," McKechnie says. "I hope I'm a living example. I was so shy, but even when I was 20, I knew I was going to be a late bloomer....

"I feel like I'm growing into my life in this [theatrical] world I've chosen. You can have a whole life[time] in the theater, if you work at it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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