A Class Act,book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price, music and lyrics by Edward Kleban. Directed by Robert Moss.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
The Cast (Slovis, Scannell, Simpson, Balcanoff, Eife, Baum, Shields); photo: Chris Reis
Ross Baum; photo provided
"To see the face behind the face behind the face."
Stripping away the heavy, protective layers of facade worn by an intelligent and talented man afraid of failure, of disappointing himself in front of others, is the goal of this show. It is not a Hollywood biopic about Broadway lyricist Edward Kleban, even though that is the name of the main character and that character does do a lot of what Ed Kleban did in his relatively short life. It is a representation of a life, the life he led, heard through the songs he wrote mostly for unproduced shows. His was truly a life without much satisfaction in spite of being considered one of the greatest lyric writers of our time. Whether his projects were not well chosen or his own attitude and demeanor stood in his way doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore. He has been gone since 1987, a forty-eight year old man whose success with only one show has left him a hero to so many aspiring writers. He was the only lyricist on the 1975 musical mega-hit, "A Chorus Line."
At the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre on the Stockbridge campus of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, "A Class Act" is being given a first-rate production with an enthusiastic company of young players. They have been directed in this show by a long-time creative force and they are surrounded by a team of designers whose amassed credits are truly impressive. Theater training being what it is today, these eight young actors have still a lot to learn. The Unicorn Theatre is six rows deep and the angle of the audience rake is severe enough to prevent anyone from being blocked from direct contact with the stage. A voice should easily carry to the back wall in this theater and not need amplification, especially with a single piano as its accompaniment. In the case of this company only a few voices managed to communicate properly and that’s a detriment to any show, but to one with such clever and incisive lyrics to not have the technique to allow a voice to properly open and "sing out" is as close to a theatrical crime as you can get.
Ed Kleban and I have much in common. He was born exactly seven years before me and we both lived in The Bronx. We were both in the BMI Musical Theater Workshop with Lehman Engel and our times overlapped. He worked for Columbia Records as a producer and I worked in the Recording Archives at Lincoln Center where I engineered tracks that sometimes made it onto Columbia Records. He wrote songs for Phyllis Newman’s one-woman show which I designed sound for at the Berkshire Theatre Festival back in 1982. We both adored musical theater and saw everything and if he hadn’t had his career I might have known someone else who did. It is with gratitude to his longtime partner Linda Kline and to the actor Lonny Price that they have made his story available in a musical, which is only fitting. If they chose to do the same thing for me, well, that probably wouldn’t work as well anyway.
The book is the biggest problem, however. It is long and it needs cutting. When the show drags at all it is in the seemingly lengthy book moments. To be honest, I wouldn’t know where to begin making those cuts. But the show runs too long and by the moving ending it is too late to fully save the evening in spite of the emotional impact that erupts.
The score is delightful with treasures on all sides. It would help if the cast could sing the songs properly and if the words, Kleban’s perfectly chosen words, could be heard. "Better," "One More Beautiful Song," "Gaugin’s Shoes," "The Next Best Thing to Love," "Broadway Boogie Woogie," "I Won’t Be There," "Self Portrait," and "Mona," a deliciously sexy, almost dirty, song are the best in the score.
Rachael Balcanoff is a delight as Lucy, an actress and aspiring writer who helps Ed audition for Michael Bennett. She handles the "Boogie Woogie" song with style and verve. Anya Whelan-Smith as Sophie, the scientist who is the love of Ed’s life (sort of the Warner Brothers heroine-type in any biopic, an Alexis Smith without the highbrow bearing), delivers a solid dramatic and superb vocal performance. Sophie is Ed’s muse and Whelan-Smith shows us why that is so in every scene.
Brian Scannell does well with his Marvin Hamlisch role, all ego and big-talk. He plays several other roles nicely but his friendly associate Charley comes across as just too nice and not resentful enough at any of Ed’s successes. Tessa Hope Slovis seems to miss the point at times playing Felicia Delgado. Her self-centeredness comes off as too much instant gratification lost instead of female superiority complex expressed.
Eddie Shields was an intriguing Michael Bennett, a bit over the reality barrier but still fun and interesting. Marie Eife does all right with the acting part of Mona but the singing and dancing left much to be desired. Robbie Simpson is evidently talented and good looking and tall and couldn’t have been less convincing as Lehman Engel if he tried. The company here really should have gone outside its residents and found a slightly older man for this role.
However, one could make a point of declaring that with this show "A Star is Born," for the performance delivered by Ross Baum as Edward Kleban was absolute perfection. This is a remarkable achievement, not so much for his appearance as for the depth of his understanding and his communication of that appreciation of the man behind the character, as mad as a hatter, as talented as Sondhem, as difficult as Rasputin. Baum is a delightful singer and dancer, light on his feet and heavy on retaining his character’s limited abilities at the same time. He communicates a man to his audience. He draws not a line drawing, which is what might be anticipated in any shallow sort of musical about a real person, but a fleshed out and filled in rich oil painting of a person. Ross Baum, if this role is any indication, has a strong, long career ahead of him. He is worth the price of your ticket and then some.
The show’s set is flexible and workable and generally a delight to watch. The costumes are just what the doctor ordered for both period of time and growth of character. So, bravo to Brett J. Banakis (sets) and David Murin (costumes). Lighting Designer Brendan F. Doyle turns in a nice design here, providing much needed revelation at those unintentionally imperfect moments.
You don’t get a much more interesting show these days than "A Class Act," and the local production does provide insights as Linda Kline fiddles with the book. A multiple Tony-Award winner, this is not a show that is finished by any means and perhaps out of this engagement it will emerge a finer, tighter musical play, one with a long life of performances ahead. Certainly the score warrants this. And we have it here, for a while anyway, and we should all take advantage of the opportunity to get to know the work of a man who could have been certifiable. . .as a genius.
A Class Act plays through August 4 at the Unicorn Theater on the Berkshire Theatre Festival campus on Route 7 in Stockbridge, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576