Four luminous songbirds swept in to The Music Center at Strathmore on Friday night to lead a largely snowbird audience on a mind-jog down memory lane.
Donna McKechnie, Maureen McGovern, Faith Prince, and Andrea McArdle — yep, all together, on one bill — are touring as 4 Girls 4. It’s a sentimental journey that is part revival and part last hurrah.
Re: the revival part: In the late ’70s, seasoned singers and show girls/comedians Rosemary Clooney, Helen O’Connell, Rose Marie, and Margaret Whiting headlined a record-setting tour of the same name, in which each gal got a 30-minute set, sandwiched between the same opening and closing group number: “Together (Wherever We Go)” from Gypsy. The show ran a dozen years, with different stars rotating in.
Re: the last hurrah part: The original concept might be a riff on the Kander and Ebb musical 70, Girls, 70, in which a crooked band of “old folks” steals furs to support their retirement. We never tell a lady’s age (well, Maureen McGovern did give her age, 64, and converted it to Celsius for us, 18.2), but we will say that these four Broadway dames aren’t babies anymore. They’ll proudly tell you — as they told us — that they all qualify for AARP cards. Their average age is 60.75. Not ready to retire yet.
Billed as a “flirty, fun frolic,” the cabaret is sectioned by quarters —¬ not unlike a football game or the phases of the moon. It’s also a four-way intersection of stage, screen, tube and spindle delights. Guaranteed something for everyone.
It came as no surprise to be bowled over by Donna McKechnie. Among these stars, she is the blue supergiant on the spectrum — the hottest in the cosmos. Producer John McDaniel, serving also as musical conductor and the pianist, surely saved the best for last by giving her the marquee fourth-quarter spot.
As the youngest cast member, Andrea McArdle, who opened things, seemed the least comfortable with the conversational, autobiographical format, and perhaps her comparatively less-animated performance could be explained by the foot she fractured over a month ago. Beneath her form-fitting off-the-shoulder black gown, she said, she was wearing “big, black, suede combat boots,” which she didn’t dare show us. Yet she very nearly bared more than her shoulders in a “wardrobe malfunction” — “Janet Jackson has nothing on me right now,” she lamented. After she converted her dress into something of a halter midway through, the show went on. Still, she seemed ill at ease or in pain as she shimmied to reach her power notes. She delivered “Tomorrow” with no apologies, and a powerful “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables.
Up next was Faith Prince, Ms. Personality. She is an extraordinary actress and comedian — a self-described “Southern girl” (Virginian) who can spin a wicked yarn. She was dressed a little Goth, with black leggings, sling-back spikes, a lacy, ruffled drape and a glittering doodad in her color-streaked hair — all reminiscent of some of the Broadway villains she has played (Ursula in The Little Mermaid and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd). Her adenoidal vocals as Adelaide from Guys and Dolls (for which she won a Tony Award) brought loud applause from the audience, and she had us eating out of her hands with “Sweet Kentucky Ham,” a song she said she first fell in love with after hearing Rosemary Clooney sing it — quelle apropos. With Prince’s succulent interpretation, you could hear a pin drop.
The big surprise of the evening for me, though, was Maureen McGovern. I would pay good money for two hours of pure McGovern. If you think her only claim to fame is her 1973 international gold record, “The Morning After,” you’re missing out. Her voice has been described as a “Stradivarius.” Agreed; it’s one of the finest instruments I’ve heard across any genre. I even did the blindfold test, just to make sure her dazzling beauty (looking half her age in rock-star sparkling blue top and black jacket with long hair and boots) wasn’t skewing my results.
McGovern’s set was like a vocal workshop: scat singing, doo-wop, super-elastic belts, sizzling torch song, and the kind of pop that makes you fling yourself back in time and onto your bed, staring up with doe-eyed, dewy-eyed hope at the posters of icons lining your wall. She also strung together a medley of the most nonsensical lyrics of Billboard hits from the Sixties and Seventies for some smart silliness. McGovern totally engaged the audience, knowing when to get us to sing along and how to shut us up with some well-placed gags. Then she took a huge risk by lowering her mic to sing “Over the Rainbow” with no amplification, like a prayer. Her mesmerizing tones not only showed off the concert hall’s jaw-dropping acoustics but her own commanding presence. That’s not just entertainment; that’s ecstasy. Her “Optimistic Voices” lead-in, combined with her music-therapy activism off-stage, made me think: She possesses truly one of the most optimistic voices in show biz today.
I didn’t want her to stop, but I also couldn’t wait for Donna McKechnie to take the baton. The iconic Broadway triple threat, dazzling in red chiffon and classic chorus-line shoes, did not disappoint. The lady’s the definition of aging gracefully, and, yes, still cuts a fabulous form as a dancer. Even while executing minimal steps, her animated arms worked double time, transporting us through the history of the American musical on stage and screen and almost supplanting McDaniel’s role as conductor.
She did supreme justice to the trio that Stephen Sondheim wrote for her, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company. In fact, how many stars are so accomplished as to have composers lining up to write songs for her? In an ode to Marvin Hamlisch, mining the best moments from A Chorus Line, she brought many to tears with the verse of “At the Ballet” that she revealed was drawn from her own life: Maggie’s Indian chief. And her “Music and the Mirror” dance break was the crowning moment from this Broadway empress.
Rounding out the taut combo with virtuoso McDaniel were two marquee theatrical talents, bassist Steve Millhouse and drummer Ray Marchica, who grooved along with a changing rainbow of lyrical light cues.
One final note on venue: There is arguably no better concert venue. than The Music Center at Strathmore. With its state-of-the-art design and location directly next to the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro garage, with FREE PARKING, it is both classy and easygoing. Although you may be hard-pressed to want to leave.
What a grand night of singing!
Running time: Approximately two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
“Together (Wherever We Go)” from Gypsy /“4 Girls 4” intro
“NYC” from Annie
“Wherever He Ain’t” from Mack & Mabel
“Where Is Love?”/“As Long As He Needs Me” medley from Oliver!
“Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle
“I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables
“Tomorrow” from Annie
“Broadway Baby” from Follies/Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls medley
“The Boy From …” from Hey, Love
“Sweet Kentucky Ham”
“Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
“Come Back to Me” anecdote from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
“What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
“Lady, Be Good”/“A-Tisket, A-Tasket”
“The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure
“Old Friends” (Simon & Garfunkel) & medley of nonsensical oldies lyrics
“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”
“Optimistic Voices”/“Over the Rainbow”
“Blues in the Night”
“A Lot of Living to Do” from Bye, Bye Birdie
Medley of movie musical hits (jokingly dubbed “masochist’s laments”)
“But Not for Me”
“You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company
“At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line
“Where Am I Going?” from Sweet Charity
“Music and the Mirror” from A Chorus Line
“Together (Wherever We Go)” from Gypsy (reprise)