The tortured artist gets tender treatment in “A Class Act,” a musical that strings together the songs of “A Chorus Line” lyricist Ed Kleban to tell the story of his life or, perhaps more accurately, strings together the story of his life in order to perform his songs. This small, thoughtful, personal chamber musical had a short-lived run on Broadway, where it never really stood a commercial chance against its splashy competitors. It’s a show that, like Kleban himself, was destined to be beloved by a few, mostly ignored by the many. All the more reason for nonprofits to step in, and the Pasadena Playhouse has smartly done so, bringing in the same New York creative team lead by director Lonny Price and a different, but near-ideal, cast.
Kleban died of cancer in 1987 at the age of 48, and “A Class Act” takes place from the vantage point of his memorial service. His friends gather at the Shubert Theatre, home of “A Chorus Line,” to bid farewell. In part because of his own perfectionism, Kleban died with a trunk-full of songs from unproduced shows.
It’s these songs — sophisticated both musically and lyrically — that form the score of “A Class Act,” which flashes back to depict Kleban’s artistic and personal journey. Starting in 1966, after Kleban (Robert Picardo) had spent some time in a mental institution and become determined to become a songwriter, show takes us through his years working as a producer at Columbia Records while pursuing his composing career, spends some time with “A Chorus Line” and depicts the decade of frustration following its success.
The book was co-written by Kleban’s close friend Linda Kline with Price, and they craftily “re-purpose” Kleban’s songs to tell his story. The fact that this works so smoothly keys us into how much Kleban’s songs were always about himself, or at least about those closest to him.
The characters here are devised in part around what Kleban wrote, so the songs really do seem to have been written for them — Bobby (Andrew Palermo) gets “Bobby’s Song,” for example, while seductress Mona (Michelle Duffy) gets the very funny song of seduction, “Mona.”
Lehman Engel (a spot-on Lenny Wolpe), the leader of Kleban’s beloved musical theater workshop, gets to instruct the class in the meaning of a “Charm Song,” while Ed’s childhood love and best friend Sophie (Luba Mason) gets serenaded with “Scintillating Sophie.”
Even the opener, “Light on His Feet,” which Kleban sings upon appearing at his own memorial, appears written for just such a context, and plays exceptionally as an ironic theme song. That’s in part because it comes from an autobiographical musical of the same title, on which Kleban was working when he died.
Where the material doesn’t quite match up as snugly, Kline and Price fuse story and song by inserting dialogue into the numbers to emphasize the autobiographical nature of the lyrics. The technique can be highly functional and effective, though it does get overused and annoying.
The overall result here is a clear-eyed vision of an artist who is his own worst enemy. We get a well-designed taste of his difficultness in a scene that depicts Ed and Marvin Hamlisch working together on “A Chorus Line.” Hamlisch (Will Jude) was the instinctual artist who didn’t suffer over his work — he comes up with something and, voila, it’s complete — so watching him endure Ed’s dissatisfaction is genuinely amusing
Price played Ed as well as directing in New York, but here he casts Robert Picardo, known to TV audiences from “Star Trek: Voyager.” Physically right for the short, bald and even nerdy Ed, Picardo is perhaps a bit cuddly for the role of this irascible figure. But he’s got the overflowing charm for the part, which allows us rather easily to tolerate a man who everyone keeps telling us was nearly intolerable.
He also hits just the right infuriated note for the most dramatic scene in the show, when Sophie, played with a wise steadiness by Manson, suggests he might be a better lyricist than composer. That was a sensitive issue for Kleban, famed for his lyrics and craving notice for his songs.
Kleban’s songs reflect the sounds of the 1970s and ’80s, when they were written. They also bring to mind the master of the sophisticated show tune, Stephen Sondheim.
Numbers range from the peppy and clever (“Gaugin’s Shoes,” “Better”), to the lyrical and lovely (“Follow Your Star,” “I Choose You”), to the spunky (duet “Don’t Do It Again,” performed by Picardo and the deliciously saucy Nikki Crawford), to the yearning songs that capture complex emotions (“The Next Best Thing to Love,” “Say Something Funny”).
There’s not too much point in critiquing them, since they’re critiqued in the show itself as “original,” “meticulous,” etc. And they really are.
The show feels over-extended and sometimes a bit over-produced. James Noone’s black-curtain set, about as simple as it gets, is elegant in its plainness. The show occasionally breaks out into bigger production numbers, but while they’re pleasantly choreographed by Marguerite Derricks, they never really take off.
The show is most comfortable, and most potent, when it’s intimate, because that’s the primary quality of Kleban’s work. His songs are the raison d’etre for “A Class Act,” and, despite a problematic sound system, they’re reason enough.