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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

A Class Act charms but has problems

A Class ActMinneapolis Musical Theatre's (MMT's) area premiere of A Class Act eventually charms with its theatricalization of the life of lyricist and composer Ed Kleban, but it's slow to find its feet, and some key voices lack strength. Kleban was a star member of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, and he earned a Tony Award for his lyrics for the smash hit, A Chorus Line. Kleban's friends, Linda Kline and Lonny Price, wrote the book for this tuneful tribute to the lyricist and composer, and their affection for Kleban infuses the musical.

When Kleban died of cancer in 1987, at the age of 48, he left notebooks chock-full of unheard songs he had written. He died with his ambition to write both the music and the lyrics for a Broadway musical unfulfilled. He longed for his songs to be heard "in a central part of town, as a part of a play, with a lot of people listening, who have paid a great deal of money to get in." His friends from the BMI Workshop took his unpublished songs and made that happen with A Class Act, a melodic, witty and amusing paean to a gifted, neurotic, sometimes impossible but lovable man.

Kline and Price gave the musical the frame of Kleban's memorial at the Shubert Theatre in New York, and the opening scene lacks pace. His friends gossip about his shortcomings, Lucy opens the memorial service, and a spotlight hits his urn, crosses the stage and finds Kleban, entering through the audience. He has returned in spirit to be with his friends for the memorial and to get his story right, as they summon scenes from his life.

Not until scene two, set in the garden of a mental hospital, where Kleban is a patient, did my interest engage.

Chet Taylor plays Kleban and looks remarkably like his character. He brings to the role a wonderfully puckish persona. Eyes alight, he connects with the audience, as he acts and dances with skill. But his singing is uncertain. I was conscious of this throughout, but as Kleban lies dying, Taylor's unsure voice works to his advantage and tugs at the heart.

A cast of seven supports Taylor on stage. Outstanding among them is strong-piped Stacey Lindell as Felicia, a fellow BMI student and a pushy record company executive at Columbia Records where Kleban worked. Together they dance a marvelous, desire-riddled routine to the song "Don't Do It Again," choreographed by director Steven J. Meerdink. Edward Williams Jr. fills the stage as Michael Bennett, the strutting director of A Chorus Line.

Bonnie Allen sings Sophie, Kleban's first love and closest friend, in a soprano that makes up in sweetness what it lacks in volume. In the delightful song "Mona," Heather McCornack as Mona seduces Kleban with the lyrics, "You are now entering Mona, population two - watch for dangerous curves and soft shoulders." McCornack plays the part well, but her voice lacks confidence.

Eric Johnson beguiles as Lehman Engel, Kleban's sweet-natured mentor at the BMI; Kevin Hansen comes into his own as composer, Marvin Hamlisch; and Tina Miller, whose character, Lucy, is known for her voice, sings adequately but without power.

Kleban's songs are melodic and charming. Among my favorites are "Paris Through the Window," "The Next Best Thing to Love" and "I Choose You."

Director Meerdink resists miking his singers, which gives the production a pleasing sense of intimacy in the cozy space of Hey City Stage. Meerdink sets three musicians just off stage; bassist Reid Heglund, keyboardist Katie Hoody, percussionist Tony Schiefert and their music balances comfortably with the on-stage voices.

Apart from directing, Meerdink also choreographs and costumes A Class Act. His dances work well, but when characters sit on the front stage floor in one scene, they simply disappear from view, if you happen to be seated in the back row. This is a well-dressed show, and Meerdink's costumes range from elegant to '70s-style unflattering, particularly for two actresses.

If you love musical theater and relish a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the creators of musicals and how they set about making musicals, A Class Act is a pleasant evening out.

A Class Act June 4 - June 27, 2004. Fridays- Sundays 7:30 p.m. One extra performance Monday, June 21 7:30 p.m. Matinee last Sunday 2:30 p.m. $21.50.Minneapolis Musical Theatre, Hey City Stage, 824, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-673-0404. www.aboutmmt.org.



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Elizabeth Weir



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