For musical theatre star Todd McKenney, the chance to perform with an orchestra is always a pleasure. “It opens up my repertoire,” he tells Limelight.
The entertainer, best known for his portrayal of Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz – and as a judge on the Australian Dancing with the Stars for no fewer than 15 seasons – McKenney will have the opportunity to front a 31-piece orchestra later this year when he takes to the seas.
McKenney will join Sydney’s The Metropolitan Orchestra, the shipboard band for Bravo Cruise of the Performing Arts, which he headlines with baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes this year, in a line-up that includes Cheryl Barker, Peter Coleman-Wright, the Seven Sopranos and more.
“So I’m going to do some stuff that uses that size orchestra and then I’m also going to do some musical theatre stuff and then a section of Peter Allen stuff – so I don’t get lynched,” he laughs.
“Normally when I do the Peter Allen stuff I really only need a ten-piece, maximum – I can even do it with a five-piece – but I just don’t want to waste the orchestra sitting there,” he says. “So I get to do some new stuff, basically.”
“I love being swamped in sound and it’s a real luxury for me when I do those gigs,” he says. “And Guy Noble, who’s conducting the orchestra – who I’ve worked with before – he’s great fun on stage too, so there’ll be some room to play with him as well. That’s one of the ways to make it unique, I think, to play with the band rather than to sing with them.”
McKenney’s regular band will be coming along as well and mixing in with the orchestra. When he speaks to Limelight, McKenney has whittled his set down to about 25, but he probably needs about 18, he says. “We’ve been working together pretty much full-on for four years now, and so I’ve got too much material,” he explains. “I’m just trying to work out what stays in and what goes.”
Of course, the Peter Allen repertoire is a must. “I love his music – I’ve never got sick of singing it,” McKenney says. “I’ve been immersed in Peter Allen for the last 20 years and he’s got such a huge repertoire that I never do the same show twice.”
“I do the big hits – they always stay in the show – but then I pick the bones out of his repertoire and put new songs in and take them out and change them over,” he explains. “So it always stays fresh for me.”
Staying fresh is something McKenney appreciates, in a career that’s spanned a variety of quite different projects. “I think that’s one of the best things about my career,’ he says. “It sort of meanders into different worlds – I do a little bit on TV, a little bit on radio and then I do a variety of different stage shows. I don’t know, I just always stay enthusiastic because nothing’s really ever the same old thing.”
So is there a medium in which he feels particularly at home? “Musicals are really where I cut my teeth, and so I’m very familiar with that format,” he says. “But I really like the smaller shows, like this tour that I’ve just done with Nancye [Hayes] for instance, where we get to actually talk to the audience and there’s a bit of interaction.”
“I like that style of show,” he says. “My shows are never fully scripted – I always leave myself wiggle room to play with the audience.”
McKenney’s Bosom Buddies tour with Nancye Hayes saw the pair touring Australia in a show talking about their lives in showbiz. McKenney and Hayes are used to traveling together – they toured together on Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. “We hit the road on that, in the car,” McKenney says. “Nancye doesn’t drive and I’m a keen driver, so she would navigate and I would drive. So Nancye and I have spent hours and hours and hours together just the two of us on the road – you form a really, really strong bond doing those sorts of tours.”
‘And we also just get on,” he says. “We’re like a pair of old slippers together. We have similar tastes in music, we have similar interests in the theatre, so it’s very easy. She feels like my stage-mum, kind of.”
McKenney’s real-life mum might be coming along to see his show on the Bravo Cruise, he says. “And I’ve got a lot of other friends in the line-up, like Tom Burlinson and Rhonda Birchmore and Teddy Tahu Rhodes.”
“I’m just looking forward to hitting the high seas with my friends as much as performing,” he says. “I’m right at the end of the cruise so I get to chill out and relax for the week and then just work at the end.”
This affords McKenney a rare opportunity – seeing his friends’ shows. “Because so often we’re always on opposite ends of the country and I don’t get to see anybody else’s shows, so it will be a real opportunity for me to go and see what my friends are doing,” he says. “I’m really excited about it.”
And the audience? “I hope they just have a great time and sit and relax and have a drink while they watch the show,” McKenney says. “All those things that you often can’t do at a real live, land theatre.”
The Bravo Cruise of the Performing Arts departs from Sydney and runs November 13 to 21