A Class Act
What would you want to have said at your funeral? And even if you could control what was said, would you want to be around to hear it?
Meet Edward Kleban: composer, lyricist, Tony Award winner (for what, you might ask?), beloved student and instructor at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. Also, someone who spent time in a mental hospital, had several girlfriends (and only one true love) but never married, was extremely well respected among his peers for his songwriting ability, but outside of one fluke (if you can call writing the lyrics to A Chorus Line a fluke) never had a show that progressed beyond the workshop stage.
So, Mr. Kleban died too young, before his full potential has been realized, and his longest-term girlfriend, Linda (though, she's called "Lucy" in the show, and the script makes it clear that she wasn't the love of Mr. Kleban's life) collaborated with Lonny Price to put together pieces of Mr. Kleban's shows into something coherent. They had a tough time; it took six years to get A Class Act up on stage, and it ran for only three months on Broadway.
I thought that A Class Act was probably going to be a revue of Kleban songs, with the performers talking directly to the audience about his life. But, no, it's a book musical with Ed Kleban as the leading character, and it's set at his memorial service, although the story progresses in more of a chronological fashion than a gathering of friends who tell "Ed" stories might suggest.
The story proves to be fairly slow in starting, and the show saves the best songs until the second act. The characters seem more like caricatures at first, and only just before intermission do we see the first real bit of interaction that doesn't seem like posturing. From that point, however, the story gets more interesting, though Mr. Kleban's character doesn't evolve much. In act two, he's frustrated at his lack of success at writing a musical that someone will produce, and then Michael Bennett manages to pair him with a young Marvin Hamlisch to write A Chorus Line. The two of them win a Tony Award for their score, but Mr. Kleban basically goes back to being frustrated about his lack of career success, even though he now has a steady source of income and a continued association with the BMI Workshop as an instructor. Women swirl around him and find him to be attractive, but he has trouble committing. And then he's diagnosed with cancer and dies. It's not a very happy story.
The songs help. Mr. Kleban was clearly an extremely talented lyricist, precise and in possession of an excellent sense of rhythm and rhyme. His music is interesting, too, though he seemed to be too much of an iconoclast, while at the same time very much a perfectionist, to put together something that would be truly commercial. It took the (predictably stormy) collaboration with Mr. Hamlisch to write something that was truly memorable, and it took the wiles of the brilliant Mr. Bennett to bring (and keep) the two of them together.
This production of A Class Act is being staged by the new class of San Diego State University's two-year Master of Fine Arts program in musical theatre, and there is some real, though sometimes raw, talent on display. Ed Kleban is played by Ira Spector, who apparently was formerly associated as an actor and director with the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre in Chicago (programs at SDSU productions have an annoying habit of omitting cast bios). Mr. Spector looks like a young Teddy Bear, but fortunately he does not choose to play Mr. Kleban as one. He sings well, and he tries to bring as much of an arc to his character as possible, given the underwritten book. As Sophie, Ed's true love, Nancy Snow (who apparently has national tour credits) has a lovely, clear singing voice and an affecting manner. Billy Thompson, a member of the MFA class, does a nice turn as Michael Bennett and serves as Musical Director. The rest of the characters are more of a mixed bag, in part because the book doesn't make much of them. It's nice, for example, that Joe Joyce, the actor playing Lehman Engel, is believable as being old enough to be teaching the others (always a potential problem in university productions), but I find it difficult to buy that such a revered teacher would be such a bland person. And, in a show about a person who was famous for his lyrics, it is inexcusable for those lyrics not to be heard distinctly (and there were several instances of this problem at the performance I attended).
In sum, A Class Act is probably not a terrific representation of Mr. Kleban's life or his talent: rather, it proves instead to be truer to Mr. Kleban's personality than anything else. And the new MFA class at San Diego State seems to have talent, but that talent also needs to be developed. They will be staging The Musical of Musicals the Musical! this spring, and I hope to go back and see how they've developed.
A Class Act Performs through November 9 at the Experimental Theatre on the SDSU campus. Tickets are available at the SDSU Box Office by calling (619) 594-6884 or online at their website.
A Class Act. Music and Lyrics by Edward Kleban, Book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price, a production of the School of Theatre, Television and Film at San Diego State University. Direction and Musical Staging by Paula Kalustian, Musical Direction by Billy Thompson. Scenic Design by Kristine Kerr, Production Design by Dominic Abbenante/Kristine Kerr, Costume Design by Jonathan Southwell, Lighting Design by Michelle Caron, Sound Design by Nhan Pham. Featuring Kyrsten Hafso, Justin Deater, Ira Spector, Amy Fritsche, Joshua McKinney, Joe Joyce, Katie Alexander, Brandon Joel Maier, Nancy Snow, and Billy Thompson.