Musical star McKechnie at Palais Nov. 7

The story of Donna McKechnie’s life reads like the script for a dramatic musical. A star of one of the most celebrated shows in the history of the American musical theater — “A Chorus Line” — she went from a Tony Award to a medical diagnosis that threatened to cancel her career. Her life is the focus of her cabaret show, “My Musical Comedy Life,” which she is bringing to South Bend’s Palais Royale at 7 p.m. Nov. 7 for its Midwest debut. Not only will the evening include the showtunes most associated with Ms. McKechnie but also her own story of battling rheumatoid arthritis   — and winning the battle.

Born in Pontiac, Mich., she began ballet classes at age 5, dropped out of high school at 16  against her parents’ objections and went to New York to pursue a career, no easy decision for a teenager in the mid-1950s. “Running away just wasn’t done,” she said. “It was a horrible experience for my parents. My father came to New York and brought me back home but my dance teacher said ‘Let her go and do this. She’s responsible.’ My mom was always my champion.” She headed back to Manhattan and, within five years, was on Broadway in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” where she met choreographer Bob Fosse and his wife, dancer/actress Gwen Verdon, who was the dance captain. “My show is entertainment,” said the award-winning performer during a recent telephone call from her home in New York. “It also is a way to show the audience the people I have been luck to work with who are not here anymore.” Among these undoubtedly are Fosse and Verdon and Michael Bennett, creator and director of “A Chorus Line” who was a guiding force in her life and career and, briefly, her husband. Musical theater fans may be aware that the characters in  “A Chorus Line” were compiled from stories shared by dancers during intense hours of group interactions with Bennett. Was McKechnie’s Cassie a mirror of her own life? “There are at least six lines in the show that came from me,” she said with a laugh. Stressing the importance of  having workshopped the show several times in advance of the final product, something not usual today because of the cost, she noted “Michael tried many things and allowed us the luxury of making mistakes and going on. It was a unique experience of having so many people working together.” Four years after her 1976 triple win (Tony, Drama Desk and Theater World Awards) as Cassie, McKechnie was disagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and told she would never walk again, let alone dance. “Arthritis doctors didn’t think you could cure it,” McKechnie recalled. “I couldn’t bear the idea of drugs and nurses so I found a nutritionist and, with kind of an holistic approach, through food and behavior, I walked standing upright after six months and, in two years, was dancing again.” Since then, she has never stopped, with productions of “Follies,” “Company,”  “Promises, Promises,” “State Fair” (which she played in the South Bend Morris Auditorium) and many others, some musical, some not, some old and some new. “You never know if something is going to land,” she said, referring to projects that may or may not be headed to production. “I can’t live with the frustration, I have to move forward. My show has been my mainstay since last October.” Success in London and Australia was important in knowing it would work. “I have learned not to count on anything,” said the talented performer. “I just want to put the show up and have a wonderful time.”

“MY MUSICAL COMEDY LIFE” will feature highlights from Ms. McKechnie’s career including “The Music and The Mirror” from “A Chorus Line.” She will do a meet-and-greet autograph session after the show and her autobiography, “Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life,” will be available for sale. Tickets are $30; $25 for students and senior citizens. Call 235-1910.

'The Pillowman' puts 'black' in 'comedy'

“The Pillowman” by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, currently on stage at Goshen’s New World Arts, is described as a “black comedy.” It is more “black” than “comedy” but there are laughs, even if one feels guilty about them. Trying to decide McDonagh’s “theme” can take all of the play’s two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission) — and even then it’s individual rather than general perception and most accurately described by one of the characters as “a puzzle without a solution.”

On first glance — actually on every glance — it doesn’t look like a comedy. The stage is black, with three metal folding chairs, a filing cabinet, a desk and a single light hanging overhead. Into the room come two detectives and one prisoner. This is a totalitarian state and the prisoner Katurian (Matthew Bell) has no idea of what crime he is charged. His interrogators Topolski (Brian Kozlowski) and Ariel (Jenna Grubaugh) play “good cop, bad cop,” and their questioning centers on Katurian’s stories dealing with violence against young children which have been copied in recent child murders in their town. Katurian insists on his innocence but changes his story when he believes that his retarded brother Michal (Michael Kennel) is bring tortured in the next room and has confessed and implicated Katurian. The brothers are brought together and recall their horribly unequal childhood out of which grew the writer’s grisly narratives (including one from which the play takes its title) and his obsession with keeping children safe from the pains of older life. The focus shifts between the emotions and relationships of the brothers and the detectives as the stories of Katurian are read and the facts of their childhood are assembled, disected and reassembled. One thing is clear, nothing is more important to the writer than the preservation of his stories, whatever the cost. The cast of this “Pillowman” handle their characters as well as can be expected in such a dark and multi-layered tale. Kozlowski earns most of the laughs, creating a benign facade which covers a ruthless interior. Bell’s writer is articulate but frequently too detached. Grubaugh has the assignment of creating a character written for a man. Despite her resemblance to Hilary Swank, it doesn’t always ring true. Kennel is properly bumbling but it is difficult to believe he is Bell’s brother. Bell is obviously British and Kennell, obviously not. The accent, or lack thereof, was difficult to ignore. Not so the incidental “music” before and after the show and at intermission. Could not decide if it was wounded whale song or grinding girders. Meant to set the tone of the play it was more loud than ominous. That said, it was an evening well-spent and I congratulate NWA and director Laura Gouin for continuing to present shows that are off the beaten path for civic groups. Certainly “The Pillowman” will not be popping up in the seasons of any other nearby community group. This is an opportunity to see a play by a writer unanimously heralded as one of the best of the modern playwrights. I urge you to take advantage of it — just leave the children at home!

“THE PILLOWMAN” will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Oct. 29-30 in the theater at 211 S. Main St. in Goshen. Entrance and parking off Third Street. Tickets at the door.

'Legally Blonde' is High Energy Fun

In 2007, the musical version of the 2001 film “Legally Blonde” went to Broadway where it remained for more than a year and was described as “fun,” “an ingratiating trifle” and “high energy, empty calories.” The second national tour (non-equity) began less than a month ago and, judging from the reaction of the near-capacity crowd in Miller Auditorium at Kalamazoo’s Western Michigan University Thursday evening, those descriptions are well-deserved — and completely accurate.

“Legally Blonde” is nothing but fun from from fast-paced opening (“OMIGYOUGUYS”) to near-finale reprise of the same. Watching the over-the-top energy of the young company, I was close to exhaustion by the final blackout — and this without leaving my seat. But, as leading blonde Elle Woods (or “Woods, Elle”) declares “exercise creates endorphins and endorphins make you happy.” Not quite the usual argument for a defense attorney at a murder trial, but absolutely on the money just the same. If you have seen the Reese Witherspoon 2001 starrer, you are familiar with the cotton candy plot. Elle (Nikki Bohne), a dedicated  Delta Nu sorority sister at a southern California university, is dumped by her  perfect boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (Matthew Ragas), who is headed for Harvard Law and needs a more “Serious” mate. Undaunted, “Positive” Elle packs chihuahua Bruiser in her signature pink bag and heads east, sailing through admissions and classes to a spot on the select team of Professor Callahan (Kahlil Joseph), winning the heart of associate professor Emmett Forrest (Nic Rouleau) and the murder case of fitness guru Brooke Wyndham (Shannon Mullen) — almost without losing one peck of perky! Bohne twinkles through to the bitter end, displaying more lung power and clothed in more shades of pink than I ever thought possible. Her supporting cast does the same. Special applause goes to the three Delta Nu Greek chorus members who “advise” Elle throughout, to beautician Paulette (Jillian Walach) who finds romance comes UPS via the “Bend and Snap,” and to Wallach for delivering a non-stop exercise number (“Whipped Into Shape”) that, by a less-in-shape performer, could result in a coronary. OK, the sets are way down from Broadway but the talent is right up there, with one high stepping number after another. True, there really isn’t one you come out of the theater remembering, but while they are on they deliver the promised endorphins. A lot of the lyrics are almost impossible to decipher but, really, who cares? They all are having so much fun that you will, too. Even the excellent cast, however,  should remember W.C. Fields’ admonition about  being on stage with children and/or animals. That Bruiser is a real scene stealer!

“LEGALLY BLONDE” plays at 8 p.m. today in Miller Auditorium off Stadium Drive in Kalamazoo. For reservations, call (269) 387-2300.