“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” says Ed Kleban, the songwriter at the center of A Class Act, “but I’m a little peculiar.”
Boy, was he. And at the Studio Theatre, the man and his demons are being celebrated and mourned with all the style he would have wanted.
Kleban’s name won’t be familiar unless you’re a theater junkie, but if you can hear the words “Kiss today goodbye” and quote the phrase that follows, you know his work: Kleban was the lyricist on A Chorus Line, the show that taught a generation of Americans just how much shit a Broadway hoofer swallows to earn a moment in the spotlight. It won him a Tony Award, brought him an Oscar nomination, and made him rich. And, assuming Linda Kline and Lonny Price haven’t taken too many liberties with their bittersweet musical valedictory, it may have been part of the reason Kleban never got another project off the ground. When he died in 1987, at age 48, he was still famous primarily for his skills as a wordsmith, and he was more than a little bitter about it.
Structured as a kind of memorial service with musical digressions, A Class Act proves that he had cause: Though the Kleban-penned tunes that illustrate his story are as musically sophisticated as they are lyrically wittyStephen Sondheim famously included one among songs he wished he’d writtennobody ever clamored to produce the shows they’re drawn from. But the evening acknowledges, too, that Kleban’s complicated personality, his compulsive perfectionism and annihilating self-doubt, did him some damage; when he wasn’t telling other people how to do their jobs (a habit that got him fired by no less imposing a figure than John Gielgud), he was convincing himself that he’d done his own badly. Kleban was the kind of guy who could think of himself as “a would-be wannabe” as long as the crowds weren’t cheering his nameand even, such was his insatiable need for affirmation, while they were.
Kline and Price tell Kleban’s story with enormous affection and a sharp, sad awareness of its ironies, gathering an assemblage of his friends and colleagues to mourn him and setting his shade loose to quibbleof coursewith the way they do it. Bobby Smith makes a warm and winning Kleban, nebbishy and prickly at once, as smart-alecky as you’d expect and just self-aware enough not to be entirely insufferable. His primary foil is the immensely sympathetic Roseanne Medina, playing an oldest-bestest-friend character modeled in part on NPR anchor Susan Stamberg, who went to a Fame-style New York high school with Kleban and was close to him until he died. Kline and Price invent a youthful romance for Kleban and Sophie, then an adult estrangementand then have Sophie, a doctor, confirm the news of his cancer diagnosis. As a plot device, it flirts with movie-of-the-week maudlin, but what with Medina’s quietly luminous presence, Smith’s wounded snarkiness, and Serge Seiden’s exquisitely paced staging, Studio’s production deftly avoids the trap.
The book has other weaknesses: It returns to the subject of Kleban’s self-doubt often enough for a fourth-grader to internalize the lesson, and in a show that’s over two-and-a-half hours, a little less might in fact be more effective. The supporting characters, with a couple of exceptions, are more generic showbiz types than fully drawn individualsthere’s the slutty chorus girl, the gimlet-eyed success-chaser who goes corporate, the dubiously talented guy who hangs gamely in there nonethelessand its portraits of Marvin Hamlisch and Michael Bennett, the other major creative forces behind A Chorus Line, are no more than brief, outsize cartoons.
But the writing is witty, to be sure, and Eric Sutton and Tony Capone do what they can with those two roles (plus a couple of others; their efforts are enough to make the characters entertaining if not interesting). Lauri Kraft, so marvelous at sending up musical-theater convention in Bat Boy, the Musical last year, proves as another of Kleban’s romantic partnersa character based on co-author Klinethat she can play it straight and lose not an ounce of her appeal. Leo Erickson is a bluff, funny presence as Kleban’s mentor (he gets one of the night’s biggest laughs with a line about his Southern roots and his sexual orientation), and Alex Jaeger’s costumes, from the baby-doll dresses and Carnaby Street stripes of the ’60s to the fur-edged excesses of that corporate type’s ’80s getup, are as dead-on fun as the most perceptive of Kleban’s lyrics.
Seiden’s confident direction and Michael J. Bobbitt’s lively, quick-witted choreography give the whole business an energy that, without sacrificing a whit of intimacy, frequently makes the production feel a good bit bigger than it is. The two of them take one tune in particulara funny, rueful rouser of an ensemble number about sacrificing cash and comfort for artistic integrityand build it steadily until, with a turn and a kick and a flourish from George Fulginiti-Shakar’s five-piece band, the half-dozen performers on the stage seem to be generating as much wattage as the Broadway babies in Kleban’s biggest hit ever did.
Part of the appeal of A Class Act, of course, is that it’s a show about show people, and the warm response of the industry-heavy opening-night audience may not find an echo among those who subscribe at Studio because it’s something to do on Thursdays. Then again, this is a musical whose biggest wish, to quote its closing lyric, is that it’ll bring us close enough “to see the face behind the face (behind the face)” of the man who inspired itand on that count, anyway, it succeeds well enough that pretty much anyone ought to be able to hear its music.
It’s hard not to notice, as you emerge from the Catalyst Theater Company’s staging of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, that the promotional materials bear a tag line that reads “When Action Spoke Louder Than Words.” Unfortunate, that, because director Dan Via has let the talk in this wordy one-act overwhelm its events until the evening feels less like a play than a 90-minute lecture.
The topic, were it indeed such, would be “Effective Activism in a Self-Interested World,” or something along those lines. Authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the team behind shows as diverse as Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame, consider what might have happened in the course of an evening the philosopher hermit of Walden spent in the Concord, Mass., pokey after the local constabulary discovered that he hadn’t been paying his taxes.
Thoreau was withholding his coin to protest an unjust war, of course, and the Catalyst forces have tweaked the 1970 script a bit (I’m pretty sure I know where) to underscore the relevancy of its Vietnam-era arguments in our own unsettled times. It’s not the worst idea, and Scott Fortier does creditable work as an excitable, easily outraged Thoreau. George Grant brings an honest dignity to the character of an unlucky drifter who shares his cell, and September Marie Fortier exhibits substantial charm as a young woman who’s by turns impressed, befuddled, and moved by Thoreau’s high-flown talk.
But Catalysta young, small company, to be perfectly fair, and one that’s staged a couple of impressive productions in the past year or sohasn’t been able to fill the other parts with actors experienced or deft enough to finesse the play’s shortcomings. (An undercharacterized Ralph Waldo Emerson in a play concerned with his influence on Thoreau will inevitably throw things off balance, and a self-conscious performer in the part will compound the problem.) And Via, who seems fond of the broad directorial gesture, hasn’t helped much: The script’s impassioned language gives his players enough to negotiate, surely, without his asking them to scurry meaningfully about in a kind of allegorical gavotte, and the story has enough emotional weight that actors shouldn’t need to step portentously into a pool of light each time a character dies. Via might have done better to take a cue from his subject, who knew that keeping things simple can lead you directly to the profound. CP