Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
A Class Act
In A Chorus Line, Cassie sings, "God, I'm a dancer; a dancer dances." Edward Kleban, the man who wrote the lyrics for A Chorus Line, was a composer. Music flowed from him, even when speech failed him. A neurotic nebbish, he was happiest writing theatre music, and he produced songs that were gracefully eloquent, intimately expressive, and charmingly attractive. Until his untimely death in 1987, Kleban continued to write songs for the stage, but none of his musicals was ever produced. It didn't matter. He was a composer; a composer composes.
A Class Act, the new musical currently having its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, is Ed Kleban's story, told through Kleban's own music. Book writers Linda Kline and Lonny Price culled through Kleban's song catalog, and molded a quasi-biographical tale around the selections -- using some of Kleban's songs in the context of the musicals-in-progress for which they were intended, and making others character songs for Kleban himself and the people who shared his life.
As could be expected with a book created around pre-existing songs, the songs don't always fit perfectly with the scenes built around them. Thus, the delightful "Don't Do It Again" is given to a character exhorting Kleban not to do something for the first time. And some of the plot is extremely predictable. When a young Kleban, after months of delay, is forced to finally play one of his songs for his classmates in a musical theatre workshop, you can bet that the song he eventually lets fly is not going to be mediocre.
But this is to be expected. The show, which is a gift to its composer, is by its very nature a love letter to Broadway and theatre magic. A Class Act celebrates the musical creation process the way we imagine it to be -- as the place where a slightly mentally imbalanced guy can stun theatre professionals into silence with his first song; or where a lyricist can instantly earn the grudging respect of a composer simply by reading him a few couplets.
The cast that delivers this valentine is led by Robert Picardo (pictured at right) as Kleban. Picardo bounds about the stage with the enthusiasm of a guy with a song in his heart and then some. Picardo doesn't downplay his character's flaws, but he plays Kleban as such a charismatic nutball, and it's clear to see how Kleban attracted such devoted friends. Not all of Kleban's songs fit comfortably in Picardo's range, but the way he gets at the higher notes fits perfectly with his character, and he is eminently believable as a guy at a piano, trying to show off a song he has written for someone else to sing.
Many of those "someone else"s are women, and the ensemble of A Class Act includes four women who sing the hell out of Kleban's music. From Michelle Duffy selling the deliciously inviting "Mona," to Luba Mason singing the tender rejection, "The Next Best Thing To Love," the women of A Class Act do justice to Kleban's songs about relationships from the female point of view. In contrast, the strength of the male ensemble is in its characters. Will Jude's take on Marvin Hamlisch in the A Chorus Line sequence is hilarious, and Andrew Palermo's Michael Bennett is topped only by his portrayal of Bobby, Kleban's "life of the party" friend.
When A Class Act opened on Broadway, it posthumously satisfied Kleban's dream of becoming a Broadway composer, and this fact alone adds to the enjoyment value of the show. In that predictable scene where Kleban blows 'em all away with his first tune in the musical theatre workshop, it blows us away too. "Paris Through The Window" is a lovely song about a young man's first trip to Paris with two companions that just don't get the beauty that he sees. But we simultaneously see it as a song coming directly from the soul of a man who composes music to retain his sanity and, at the same time, a glorious theatre song which we are hearing for the first time because its composer's friends loved him enough to give it to us. Working on three levels at once, "Paris Through The Window" packs a greater emotional punch in this show than it ever would have in the musical for which Kleban wrote it. And that's a gift to everyone.
Pasadena Playhouse, Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Lyla White, Executive Director; proudly presents A Class Act. Music and Lyrics by Edward Kleban; Book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price. Scenic Design James Noone; Costume Design Carrie Robbins; Lighting Design Yael Lubetsky, based on original lighting design by Kevin Adams; Sound Design Frederick W. Boot; Casting Julia Flores; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Stage Manager Lea Chazin; Musical Direction by Steve Orich; Choreography by Marguerite Derricks; Directed by Lonny Price.
A Class Act plays at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 16, 2002. For tickets, call (626) 356-PLAY.