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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
A Class Act
By Elyse Sommer
While backstage musicals featuring unfamiliar songs written by someone whose claim to fame rests on his lyrics for a single show (A Chorus Line) aren't exactly a sure-fire recipe for a long-running hit. As it turned out, A Class Act did have enough class and heart to make the leap from off-Broadway to Broadway. But the charm of many of the songs, the cleverly inserted excerpts from A Chorus Line good reviews and five Tony awards notwithstanding, the lack of a big name subject brought the curtain down after just three months at the Ambassador Theater.
I liked A Class Act well enough to look forward to seeing it once again, especially given the Berkshire Theater Group's synergistic summer 2012 scheduling. Their annual big musical at the Colonial was none other than the legendary A Chrous Line which made this smaller bio-musical about its lyricist and with composer Marvin Hamlisch and director Michael Bennett as characters an interesting companion piece. While the actors at th Unicorn are young unknowns (many still in college), director Robert Moss is a seasoned pro, the founder of New York's prestigious Playwrights Horizon. And to lend additional fresh insights, Linda Kline has been on scene to lend a collaborative hand.
Promising as all this sounds, I'm afraid I can't say that I liked this A Class Act as well, or even better , than I did years ago. The story is the same: The setup is a memorial organized by frinds and lovers held at the theater where A Chorus Line, the central event in Kleban's musical history was still playing. The memorial setup, leads into a flashback that takes us all the way back to Kleban's nervous breakdown while still in college, his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Sophie, his participation in the famous BMI musical theater workshop led by composer Lehman Engel . Of course, there's also the making of A Chorus Line and its, for Kleban, frustrating aftermath that made him one of the theater's most successful failures.
A Class Act remains a touching tribute to a gifted songsmith who died too young, The creators still deserve a shoutout for the way they used Kleban's own music to accompany the story telling and allowed him to be a ghostly participant in the musical narrative. Unfortunately, the current piece suffers from certain missing elements, and the addition of several musical numbers is more of a deficit than an asset.
About those missing elements. . .
This is a small musical with just eight actors playing multiple roles so it doesn't call for a big band. But the current production has downsized the original small band to a single piano which creates the feeling and sound of a rehearsal rather than a finished show. The Unicorn happens to have two little raised platforms at ether side of the stage where a small combo could easily have be accommodated. Surely there's no shortage of musicians in this music rich area, and the budget could have been stretched to cover a couple of other musicians.
Linda Kline in the subscriber enrichment notes comments on the Unicorn casts being considerably younger than the characters they play as a positive because "the piece is about aspirations, and here are young people who are aspiring to a life in the theatre or a creative life." While Ms. Kline has a point, this casting suffers from a loss of all-out ensemble excellence. While Ross Baum quite impressively portrays Kleban as a neurotic nebbish, much as Lonny Price did in the original, and Anya Whelan-Smith brings warmth and a good voice to the role of Sophie, the ensemble as a whole mostly fails to really get inside the various roles. Tessa Hope Slovis plays the aggressive producer too broadly. The youthful casting misses the mark with Lehman Engel who was the group's older mentor. Here, without any special makeup, Robbie Simpson comes off as just one of the gang.
To move on to Linda Kline's additions to this production . . .
The new, "character" she calls "Mr. Sheep" really doesn't add either depth, humor or pathos. As for the songs restored for this version, "Harold" is a nice addition, well sung by Sophie, so is Ed's "Nightmare." But the original show was long enough at 2 hours plus intermission, and since there are neither cuts or a step up in pace to accommodate these added songs (as well as an extra reprise), this production now clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes which is way too long for a small, modestly staged show like this, which would be less wearying at 90 minutes without an intermission. Actually A Chorus Line too is longer than it should be, especially since it doesn't have an intermission, but what can be forgiven in a show that defined Broadway for generations of theater goers, but is more like a fatal flaw in A Class Act.
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