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A CurtainUp Review
Class Act

A Class Act On Broadway
Lonny Price as Ed Kleban
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
When I reviewed A Class Act during its brief tenure at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II (see end of this gray box), I mentioned that it might have a Broadway run in its future. Yet, when my conjecture turned into fact, I caught myself wondering about whether the show could transfer successfully. Could it retain the intimacy which made you feel you were part of the memorial service for composer-lyricist Edward Kleban. Would the eight performers look lost on the Ambassador's wide stage? Would James Noone's set have a cut-rate quality or, worse, undergo a high dosage of glitz treatment to meet Broadway expectations?

I'm pleased to report that Klebans'   friends have worked things out so that his songs are getting the hearing he always hoped for -- "in a large building, in a central part of town, as part of a play, with a lot of people listening, who have all paid a great deal to get in." Ed's story is even more poignant now that it plays to a large audience and the music holds up well enough to bode well for sales of the recently released CD. In a nutshell, A Class Act still lives up to its title.

The eight performers fully inhabit the stage. James Noone has augmented his set design just enough to give the show the aura of Broadway show but with the simplicity of the original intact. Kevin Adams' lighting adds an even subtler glow than before, Carrie Robbins has adjusted her witty wardrobe to fit the four new cast members and the band (directed by David Loud) has been appropriately enlarged. Marguerite Derricks' choreography (she now receives full credit) benefits from the greater freedom of movement, especially the delightful "Paris Through the Window".

My original review holds for the Broadway production. A few additional comments are in order:

The cast members who took over for those otherwise engaged -- Donna Bullock for Carolee Carmello, Sara Ramirez for Julia Murney, Patrick Quinn for Jonathan Freeman and Jeff Blumenkrantz for Ray Wills -- all have fine voices and fit the shoes of their predecessors beautifully. Murney was Ä more realistic as Felicia the record company executive, but the somewhat bigger than life Ramirez version works just as well. She has also inspired the addition of a peppy new song, "Don't Do It Again" which replaces “Making Up Ways.” Blumenkrantz proves particularly perfect during his turn as Klein's Chorus Line collaborator, Marvin Hamlish.

As the cast and staging have undergone perspicacious changes, so has the story line. Nothing major, but all to the good. There's less of a fuss made about the urn that sets the scene for the memorial and Kleban is a much more endearing and universal character whose struggle and yearnings audiences can relate to even if they're not musical theater insiders.

As this heartwarming musical proves, Kleban, though mostly praised for his lyrics, could write songs that delivered on all counts. As portrayed by Lonny Price this neurotic, persevering nebbish will win you over from the moment he descends from the Ambassador's left-hand balcony to make his "Thornton Wilder return" to take an active part in his memorial. And yes, the end of his story once again brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.

Except for the four new actors members mentioned above, the cast remains the same, per the production notes at the end of the original review below. With the exception of the above mentioned addition and deletion, the song list at the end of the original review also remains accurate. The Broadway production began performances at the Ambassador, 219 W. 49th St. (Broadway/8th Av), 239-6200 on 2/14/01 and opened 3/11/01. Performances Tues-Sat 8 pm; Wed and Sat 2 pm; Sun 3 pm -- $75 -$25.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/14/01 performance.

-- Review of A Class Act at MTC
The Class Act Ensemble
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
This is the first show of any genre I've seen this season that brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. It also left me filled with admiration for the eight talented performers who deserve a standing ovation for turning this small musical into a big treat for the eye, the ear and the heart. From Lonny Price as the central character to the four fabulous leading ladies (yes, each one earns the "leading lady" tag!) -- Carolee Carmello, Randy Graff, Julia Murney and Nancy Kathryn Anderson -- there isn't a performance in this bio-musical that doesn't shine, individually and in ensemble.

And the show lives up to its title in every way. The book, cleverly and smoothly integrates the late composer-lyricist Edward Kleban's story with twenty-one of his heretofore unstaged songs. The small band is neatly tucked into a barely visible balcony. James Noone's minimal but versatile set, Kevin Adams' adroit lighting, Carry Robbins' nifty costumes and Scott Wise's lively choreography create the aura of a full scale musical with the wonderful closeness of a theater in which the audience is literally wrapped around the stage.

So who exactly was Edward Kleban? Why should this man whose name doesn't exactly flash a lightbulb of recognition with the average theater goer be the subject of a musical? Substitute A Chorus Line for Edward Kleban and you've got your answer. You see, Kleban was the lyricist for that landmark show. However, while his collaboration with composer Marvin Hamlish was his ticket to a Tony and a Pulitzer, it did not bring him the prize he coveted most of all, a musical with music as well as lyrics by Edward Kleban. Eleven years after his death from lung cancer, Linda Kline, his long time companion, and Lonny Price have made Kleban's dream come true -- weaving his song legacy into the story of his life. It's no minor measure of their craftsmanship that the songs fit the story so well that they seem to have been written for this very purpose.

At a time when audiences are starved for musicals with stories that resonate emotionally and songs that are catchy without being mundane, A Class Act is sure to be a sellout during its Off-Broadway debut. Like A Chorus Line, and two other recent Manhattan Theatre Shows (The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and Proof) it may well have a Broadway run in its future.

The "A" in the show's title was no doubt inspired by the "A" added by Chorus Line director Michael Bennett to position it at the top of the theatrical ABC listings. This and other bits of backstage musical theater lore add to the show's fun and authenticity. "Charm Song" is a particularly delightful example. In it BMI songwriting workshop teacher Lehman Engel (Jonathan Freeman ) assigns his class (made up of ensemble members) to write their own charm song to get a handle on "the Southern Belle of musicals". Freeman's portrayal is so vivid that no prior knowledge about this workshop and its leader's legendary status is necessary.

The entire song cycle has the flavor of the traditional musical esthetic. The music is tuneful and bouncy (often danceable). The lyrics full of clever lines.

Kleban's first appearance on stage is in a large Wedgwood urn. This unlikely opening for a musical proves to be a highly effective device to have his spirit materialize as a constant presence at the memorial service that frames the show. As the friends, lovers and admirers who organized the memorial sing "after Chorus Line,' something happened . . .cause after Chorus Line nothing happened," the central event in Kleban's musical history is immediately established. The rest of the show is a flashback that eventually returns to the beginning. The flashback takes us back to Kleban's nervous breakdown while still in college, his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Sophie (Randy Graff) and Lehman Engel and the participants (played by company members), and the rollercoaster career (which in the second act takes us to the making of A Chorus Line).

Short, bald, the neurotic yet grandiose nebbish incarnate, Lonny Price's Kleban will no doubt doubt bring Woody Allen to mind. Like Allen, Price also wears several hats (co-writer and director) and plays a man who, appearances to the contrary, has a varied romantic life. Fortunately for the show, he's also light on his feet and sings.

Besides the already mentioned Jonathan Freeman, the other multiple role playing men in the ensemble also do well with star turns -- David Hibbard as A Chorus Line director Michael Bennett and Ray Wills as its composer, Marvin Hamlish. If some liberties have been taken with Bennett's and Hamlish's characters, no matter. These scenes as well as the show's very fresh re-creation of A Chorus Line excerpts are especially memorable.

All four women have appealingly differentiated personalities and knockout voices. Randy Graff, as Sophie, the smart childhood sweetheart and emotional center of Kleban's life, gets to deliver the show's best ballad, "Next Best Thing to Love" -- a bittersweet finale to their romantic connection. Carolee Carmello, as co-writer Linda Kline's stand-in character Lucy sings thrillingly in solos, duets, trios and as part of the ensemble. Julia Murney, last seen in Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party has switched from vulnerable blonde to pragmatic musical entrepreneur. But A Class Act does have its sexy blonde in Nancy Kathryn Anderson who as Mona delivers on the promise shown in another musical biodrama, Jolson & Co.) -- especially so when she sings about a night with Ed: "You're now leaving Mona, population of one. . ."

While the musical is very much a class act, it is not perfect in that Ed's kvetching neurotic story tends towards repetition instead of a more leisurely development of the theme of the artist who is crippled by the need to be the best in everything instead of building on his strengths. Happily, A Class Act, unlike its subject, does not let its imperfections prevent its strengths from carrying the day.

A consumer note: Stage II tickets are sold on an open seating basis so get there early if you want to sit in the center section. Of the two side sections, the one nearest the entrance to the theater has better sight lines.

Music, lyrics, direction: Ed Kleban.
Book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price
Choreography: Scott Wise

Cast: Nancy Kathryn Anderson, Carolee Carmello, Jonathan Freeman, Randy Graff, David Hibbard, Julia Murney, Lonny Price,, Ray Wills
Set Design: James Noone
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Costume Design: Carrie Robbins
Sound Design: Mark Menard/Geoff Zink
Musical direction, vocal arrangement, dance music: Todd Ellison
Music coordinator: John Miller
Additional choreography: Marguerite Derricks
Production consultant: Lori Steinberg
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, includes 15-minute intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club (in association with Musical Theatre Works) - Stage II, 131 W. 55th St. (6th/7th), 212/ 581-1212
From 10/03/2000-12/10/2000; opening 11/09/2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/12 performance
Closed 6/10/01 after 105 performances

Musical Numbers
*Additional lyrics by Brian Stein
**Additional lyrics by Glenn Slater
%Additional choreography by Marguerite Derriks
Act One
  • Light On My Feet */Ed & Company
  • Fountain in the Garden/Company
  • One More Beautiful Song/Ed with Sophie
  • Fridays At Four/Company
  • Bobby's Song/Bobby
  • Charm Song/Lehman & Company
  • Paris Through The Window**/Ed, Bobby, Charley
  • Mona/Mona
  • Making Up Ways/Ed
  • Under Separate Cover/Lucy, Sophie & Ed
  • Gauguin's Shoes/Ed & Company
  • Follow Your Star/Sophie & Ed
Act Two
  • Better+/ Ed, Felicia & Company
  • Scintillating Sophie/Ed
  • Next Best Thing To Love/Sophie
  • Broadway Boogie Woogie/Lucy
  • A Chorus Line excerpts $/Company
  • Better reprise/Ed & Company
  • I Choose You/Ed & Lucy
  • Say Something Funny (reprise)/Company
  • When the Dawn Breaks/Ed
  • Self Portrait/Ed

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