Ed Kleban (1939-87) was a helluva songwriter, and, apparently, a high-maintenance friend, qualities that make for an enjoyable musical about his life.
“A Class Act” doesn’t avoid the annoying “and then he did this and then he did that” quality of biographical shows, and it’s too long (replete with deathbed scene) for what we really need to know about Kleban. However, the Berkshire Theatre Group production in Stockbridge, with a terrific young cast under theater veteran Robert Moss’s beautifully paced direction, makes you want to hear more of Kleban’s songs for shows that never made it.
‘A Class Act’
WHERE: The Unicorn Theatre, Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, Mass.
WHEN: Through Aug. 4
HOW MUCH: $45
MORE INFO: 413-298-5576 or www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
Oh, of course, there was one show for which he wrote the lyrics that did make it: “A Chorus Line,” now at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.
“A Class Act” has a book by Linda Kline & Lonny Price, Kleban’s close friends, so the professional and private story of this wound-tight, talented New Yorker rings true. He was his own worst critic, but his numerous drafts ultimately led to excellence. He put his craft first, so the various women in his life got seconds. He remained loyal to the members of Lehman Engel’s BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, a weekly gathering of aspiring songwriters who critiqued each other’s efforts. (He took all of the songs he and composer Marvin Hamlisch were working on for “A Chorus Line” to these workshop buddies for feedback.) Finally, he struggled in the years after that hit show to write another, unsuccessfully, before dying of cancer at 48.
Thanks to the work of Michael Callahan, Brett J. Banakis, Solomon Weisbard and Kate Johnson, the staging of the show’s 17 scenes is swift and seamless. Brendan F. Doyle’s sound design and David Murin’s costumes (changing to fit the times) complement the proceedings. Kline & Price have cleverly used Kleban’s songs to anchor the narration, and the intimate setting of The Unicorn makes the entire enterprise feel like a cabaret performed by a gifted cast of eight whose energy is boundless.
Special mention, of course, to musical director Mark Gionfriddo, whose deft piano accompaniment is the only one necessary. Perfect.
Robbie Simpson makes Lehman Engel three-dimensional, someone you want to know more about. Brian Scannell plays Marvin Hamlisch, and whether or not that’s what Hamlisch is really like, he’s a stitch. Marie Eife (who is the company’s dance captain) scores on “Mona.”
Tessa Hope Slovis makes Felicia Delgado a deep-throated scourge to be reckoned with. As Bobby, Eddie Shields does right by “Bobby’s Song” and makes Michael Bennett “one singular sensation.” Rachael Balcanoff is upbeat on “Broadway Boogie Woogie” and tender on “I Choose You.” And Anya Whelan-Smith, as the constant Sophie, is Kleban’s perfect foil, particularly in the evening’s best song: “The Next Best Thing to Love.”
About Ross Baum as Ed: not enough superlatives available to describe this performer. He’s a song-and-dance man (and pianist) of the first order. With large-framed glasses, a goofy smile, and not a small amount of petulance, Baum makes Ed someone running as fast as he can from unseen demons, someone you want to send to the corner or hug. A three-dimensional characterization.
The program mentions Kline’s efforts to develop one of Kleban’s unproduced musicals. There’s certainly enough talent evident in this show’s songs to warrant a staging.