Like most of the Manhattan Theatre Club members in the audience at MTC's tiny Stage II the other night, Kathleen and I went to see 'A Class Act' because we'd been sent tickets; I don't think we'd have gone out to buy them. But that's the whole point of subscribing to MTC. Who would have thought that the life of late songwriter and (more famously) lyricist Edward Kleban was made of musical comedy material? Kleban seems to have written a jillion interesting songs but never managed to get any of them onto the stage, despite the prestige (and implied connectedness) of working for Goddard Lieberson at Columbia Records and contributing the lyrics to 'A Chorus Line.' I came away from the show convinced that Kleban had to die that his songs might be sung in a theatre. A perfectionist endowed with a host of annoying tics, Kleban managed at one point to irritate Sir John Gielgud into firing him from working as a sort of script doctor for the Debbie Reynolds revival of 'Irene.' Kleban was still working, it seems, on a show called 'Gallery' at the time of his death in 1988. There is little in this resume calculated to appeal to anyone not intoxicated by backstage drama.
But 'A Class Act' turned out to be a moving little hit. I say 'little' because I think it will always do best in cabaret settings, with or without (Stage II) refreshments. A man of the theatre by the name of Lonny Price has taken a passel of Kleban's songs and worked them into a two-act biopic. He also plays Kleban, making an endearing leprechaun out of the man, which is probably the best that can be done in the way of apotheosis. Sourness burned away, 'A Class Act' makes you want to like this master of light verse, and perhaps shed a tear when his hopes are disappointed. Never very quick to pick up new music, I can't remember a single tune, only a few hooks here and there, but I will say that the songs were both interesting and agreeable to listen to, and that one of them, 'Next Best Thing To Love,' brought the (little) house down, with 'Gaughin's Shoes' and 'Better' making nearly equal impressions. Say Something Funny (Until I Start to Cry)' could be an anthem for the AIDS plague, although Kleban died of a kind of lung cancer brought on by heavy smoking. (Price has him saying, 'It's no use; I've been to all the best doctors but I'm not gay.")
Mr. Price also directs the fine cast, which includes Randy Graff, giving a very strong performance as Kleban's first love, Sophie; Carolee Carmello, Nancy Kathryn Anderson and Julia Murney, as the other women in Kleban's life; David Hibbard, who has a lot of fun impersonating choreographer Michael Bennett (and who ought to know, having "appeared as Rum Tum Tigger in 2,197 performances of Broadway's infamous musical Cats"); and Ray Wills and Jonathan Freeman. The seven-man band tucked up in the ceiling played expertly. If I have a quibble, it's with a musical style, both of composition and performance, that accentuates the fey and wispy: 'A Class Act' features a lot of chimes and Michael Crawford crooning. Even the women (Ms. Graff excepted) sound a little on the castrated side. (November 2000)
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