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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
-- Review of A Class Act at MTC
And the show lives up to its title in every way. The book, cleverly and smoothly integrates the late composer-lyricist Edward Kleban's story with twenty-one of his heretofore unstaged songs. The small band is neatly tucked into a barely visible balcony. James Noone's minimal but versatile set, Kevin Adams' adroit lighting, Carry Robbins' nifty costumes and Scott Wise's lively choreography create the aura of a full scale musical with the wonderful closeness of a theater in which the audience is literally wrapped around the stage.
So who exactly was Edward Kleban? Why should this man whose name doesn't exactly flash a lightbulb of recognition with the average theater goer be the subject of a musical? Substitute A Chorus Line for Edward Kleban and you've got your answer. You see, Kleban was the lyricist for that landmark show. However, while his collaboration with composer Marvin Hamlish was his ticket to a Tony and a Pulitzer, it did not bring him the prize he coveted most of all, a musical with music as well as lyrics by Edward Kleban. Eleven years after his death from lung cancer, Linda Kline, his long time companion, and Lonny Price have made Kleban's dream come true -- weaving his song legacy into the story of his life. It's no minor measure of their craftsmanship that the songs fit the story so well that they seem to have been written for this very purpose.
At a time when audiences are starved for musicals with stories that resonate emotionally and songs that are catchy without being mundane, A Class Act is sure to be a sellout during its Off-Broadway debut. Like A Chorus Line, and two other recent Manhattan Theatre Shows (The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and Proof) it may well have a Broadway run in its future.
The "A" in the show's title was no doubt inspired by the "A" added by Chorus Line director Michael Bennett to position it at the top of the theatrical ABC listings. This and other bits of backstage musical theater lore add to the show's fun and authenticity. "Charm Song" is a particularly delightful example. In it BMI songwriting workshop teacher Lehman Engel (Jonathan Freeman ) assigns his class (made up of ensemble members) to write their own charm song to get a handle on "the Southern Belle of musicals". Freeman's portrayal is so vivid that no prior knowledge about this workshop and its leader's legendary status is necessary.
The entire song cycle has the flavor of the traditional musical esthetic. The music is tuneful and bouncy (often danceable). The lyrics full of clever lines.
Kleban's first appearance on stage is in a large Wedgwood urn. This unlikely opening for a musical proves to be a highly effective device to have his spirit materialize as a constant presence at the memorial service that frames the show. As the friends, lovers and admirers who organized the memorial sing "after Chorus Line,' something happened . . .cause after Chorus Line nothing happened," the central event in Kleban's musical history is immediately established. The rest of the show is a flashback that eventually returns to the beginning. The flashback takes us back to Kleban's nervous breakdown while still in college, his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Sophie (Randy Graff) and Lehman Engel and the participants (played by company members), and the rollercoaster career (which in the second act takes us to the making of A Chorus Line).
Short, bald, the neurotic yet grandiose nebbish incarnate, Lonny Price's Kleban will no doubt doubt bring Woody Allen to mind. Like Allen, Price also wears several hats (co-writer and director) and plays a man who, appearances to the contrary, has a varied romantic life. Fortunately for the show, he's also light on his feet and sings.
Besides the already mentioned Jonathan Freeman, the other multiple role playing men in the ensemble also do well with star turns -- David Hibbard as A Chorus Line director Michael Bennett and Ray Wills as its composer, Marvin Hamlish. If some liberties have been taken with Bennett's and Hamlish's characters, no matter. These scenes as well as the show's very fresh re-creation of A Chorus Line excerpts are especially memorable.
All four women have appealingly differentiated personalities and knockout voices. Randy Graff, as Sophie, the smart childhood sweetheart and emotional center of Kleban's life, gets to deliver the show's best ballad, "Next Best Thing to Love" -- a bittersweet finale to their romantic connection. Carolee Carmello, as co-writer Linda Kline's stand-in character Lucy sings thrillingly in solos, duets, trios and as part of the ensemble. Julia Murney, last seen in Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party has switched from vulnerable blonde to pragmatic musical entrepreneur. But A Class Act does have its sexy blonde in Nancy Kathryn Anderson who as Mona delivers on the promise shown in another musical biodrama, Jolson & Co.) -- especially so when she sings about a night with Ed: "You're now leaving Mona, population of one. . ."
While the musical is very much a class act, it is not perfect in that Ed's kvetching neurotic story tends towards repetition instead of a more leisurely development of the theme of the artist who is crippled by the need to be the best in everything instead of building on his strengths. Happily, A Class Act, unlike its subject, does not let its imperfections prevent its strengths from carrying the day.
A consumer note: Stage II tickets are sold on an open seating basis so get there early if you want to sit in the center section. Of the two side sections, the one nearest the entrance to the theater has better sight lines.