Todd McKenney is known for speaking his mind. So when he says “anything goes” at his new show, audiences had better strap themselves in for the ride.
It’s been 20 years since he made his debut as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz but he is not done paying homage to his hero. In Todd McKenney Sings Peter Allen: The Piano Sessions the audience is part of the show.
Questions are welcome from the audience, no matter how off topic, and McKenney is joined by Michael Rohanek on grand piano, Ralph Marshall on bass and additional vocals from the talented Lisa Callingham.
McKenney is clearly in his element. He has come a long way since he started dancing at the age of three and played the part of Percy the Penguin in children’s television show Fat Cat while still at school in Perth.
“It was my first job. I would be at Channel 7 by 7am and put on a penguin outfit until 9am and then go to school,” he tells Weekender.
“It was just what I did in the mornings and I loved it. I was getting more money per week as Percy than I was working 40 hours a week at a travel agency the following year. I filled in as Fat Cat, too, whenever Reg Whiteman was away. I’ve also been Ronald McDonald in my time.”
McKenney has long credited Allen for inspiring him to pursue a stage career. In his latest show, however, he also looks at the people who influenced Allen.
“To keep things fresh we’re paying tribute to his great mate Bette Midler, his mother-in-law Judy Garland, his wife Liza Minnelli and 1960s cabaret artist Frances Faye, who took Peter under her wing and taught him how to be himself on stage.”
McKenney’s role is not scripted, much to his delight. Nor is the show tied to an absolute format. McKenney opens the floor to questions from the audience and says they are “always very random”.
“We never do the exact same show twice, although we always play Peter’s greatest hits. The questions dictate where each show goes and they’ll ask anything from what Sonia Kruger and Mark Holden are really like to asking me about my greyhounds,” he says.
“It goes off like a firecracker towards the end of the second half when they’ve all had a couple of drinks and they’re chilled. We laugh our heads off and anything can happen, you’re right.
“One lady asked if she could sit on the stage for the remainder of the show so we set up a table and chair and she drank her wine and it was hilarious.”
McKenney is a busy man who juggles television, radio and film roles with touring stage performances. He has also started a company called Todd McKenney Presents, which will kick off next year. It’s all about finding emerging artists who ”need a little polish and finesse and marketing know-how behind them”.
“For me, what I do is a business as well as a passion,” he says. “I’ve learned so much since The Boy From Oz. Ben Gannon, who produced it, didn’t just make me the star of the show, he really took me under his wing and taught me about the business side of things, the ticketing and marketing.
“I know what it’s like to be the star of the show, I know what it’s like to do eight shows a week, I know what it’s like to promote and build a show.”
On his rare days off McKenney cherishes the opportunity to curl up on the couch with a book.
“I do keep myself busy. I’ve got a mortgage though and that helps keep me motivated,” he says, laughing.
“My guilty pleasure is reading a book. I love reading, but I can only read when I have nothing in my psyche to learn – no songs, no arrangements, no scripts. It’s the only time I can read otherwise I feel so guilty.”