So who says Broadway types aren’t sentimental? It may end up costing them a pretty penny, but a quixotic trio of producers have seen fit to grant “A Chorus Line” lyricist Edward Kleban his lifelong wish of seeing his words and music performed “in a large building, in a central part of town, in a dark room, as part of a play, with a lot of people listening who have all paid a great deal to get in.” That’s how Ed himself describes the dream he spent his life pursuing in the bio-musical “A Class Act,” which uses his own songbook to tell his story.
You may have noticed that that description only fits a Broadway musical, and a Broadway musical is what “A Class Act” has now become, following its mostly well-received Off Broadway premiere at Manhattan Theater Club. How long it will continue to warrant the description — before becoming an ex-Broadway musical — is a knotty question.
The show’s small-scale charms are still intact, even as it has been gracefully expanded to fill a much larger stage. It has also been improved in some respects — the first act is distinctly clearer and more engaging. But this is still a show that blithely drops names such as Lehman Engel and Goddard Lieberson, and even goes so far into showbiz minutiae as to include a tiny quotation from the musical “Bajour!” (Exclamation point mine — I think.) In a competitive season for tuners new and old, “A Class Act” will need a rousing new set of reviews and aggressive marketing if it hopes to draw the attention of audiences beyond hardcore theater lovers.
The show’s supporters would surely point out that Kleban’s megahit “A Chorus Line” was itself a “musical about musicals,” as “A Class Act” is honestly selling itself in its print ad campaign. But that show succeeded because it found universal resonance in the specific struggles of its gypsy characters. “A Class Act,” by contrast, glories in the idiosyncrasies of its singular subject and the intricate workings of the musical theater world. It’s an unabashedly inside-baseball show, to borrow a metaphor that Mets fan Kleban would understand.
He was, as his friends recall at the memorial that gives the show a graceful frame, something of a pain in the neck: neurotic as well as phobic, self-doubting and self-aggrandizing at the same time, his own worst enemy when it came to collaboration. And Kleban’s struggle is so very much his own that it almost precludes any deep sympathy on the part of your average audience member (when he bridles at the idea of contributing only his lyrics to “A Chorus Line,” many will be ready to give up on him). But he gives the show a lively focus, and as played with a spicy mixture of impishness and aggressiveness by Lonny Price, he is also rather easier to take on the Ambassador Theater stage (on MTC’s tiny Second Stage, the character’s petulance and occasional nastiness was a bit overbearing).
How he managed to tame his demons long enough to translate his talent into a brief burst of Broadway success — and before succumbing to cancer at the age of 48 — is the story of the show. Book writers Price and Linda Kline have beefed up the first act significantly, giving it a sturdier structure and integrating the songs more strongly into the musical’s biographical fabric. “Under Separate Cover,” a rousing song about a broken marriage that is a highlight of the score, now comments more directly on Kleban’s own difficulty to commit to sometime girlfriend Sophie (Randy Graff). A new song, “Don’t Do It Again,” sung by Ed and his friend and boss at Columbia Records, Felicia (Sara Ramirez), clarifies the central crisis he faced: Whether to settle for a modestly successful life in the record business or go for his dream of showbiz success.
The score contains several other small gems, and they are winningly performed by a cast comprising holdovers from the MTC stand as well as some new additions. Ramirez is archly brassy as the aggressive Felicia, and Donna Bullock is fine as Ed’s sometime paramour Lucy, while Patrick Quinn is a significant (and new) comic asset as Lehman Engel. Graff still gives a performance of lovely simplicity as Ed’s long-suffering sometime girlfriend Sophie, and Nancy Anderson still gets to show off her versatile vocal abilities in “Mona.”
Small and gemlike, too, is the production, which has not attempted to dress itself in ill-fitting finery for its move to Broadway. James Noone’s set is gorgeously simple: a wall of black panels that shift and turn and rise and fall, revealing or concealing sections of a white backdrop that is suffused with various bright colors. Banks of stage lights are arrayed at the right, acting as part of the set design as well as the vehicle for lighting designer Kevin Adams’ exceptionally lovely work. Marguerite Derricks has staged the musical numbers with a combination of simple vernacular movement and show dancing that complements the similar blend of life and art in Kleban’s lyrics.
The spareness of the production, and its sometimes lonely look on the comparatively vast expanse of a Broadway stage, also serve to give the show a small share of emotional resonance it didn’t have earlier. We are faced with the forbidding empty spaces that Kleban and his ilk work so passionately to imbue with theatrical life, and we can’t help but notice the daunting nature of the task. With Broadway stages usually — if not invariably — awash in color and costume and spectacle, it’s easy to forget that the simpler magic of words and music are the essence of musical theater, and all that survives when the curtain falls for the last time. It will certainly not be joining “A Chorus Line” in the record books, but “A Class Act” gives Ed Kleban’s well-crafted songs the chance they never had to hold their own on a Broadway stage.
So break a leg, Ed.