Something about A Class Act, a small musical with a big heart, captured my emotional core. The story of a talented guy who wants nothing else in life but to be publicly recognized for his true passion, but for various reasons, including his own personal demons, never gets fully discovered before passing away at a relatively young age (48) is something we can all relate to. No?
Edward Kleban was best known for writing the lyrics for to the musical A Chorus Line (with music penned by the late, great Marvin Hamlisch, who passed away last month). And beyond that... not much else. While Kleban was a smart lyricist (if you're reading this review you're probably familiar with "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line, which exemplifies his knack for matching words to music), he was also a well-rounded and versatile musical theatre composer, a skill that never got recognized beyond his small circle of admirers.
So when director, writer and actor Lonny Price, along with book writer Linda Klein, got together a decade after his death to explore the numerous songs Kleban had written over the years, they knew they had happened on a treasure-trove of material. So, they got to work, stitching together a show celebrating his nearly forgotten life. That show premiered on Broadway in 2001, starring and directed by Price.
And thankfully, through Porchlight Music Theatre's beautifully realized Chicago premiere of this artfully structured memorial musical, we get to not only hear Kleban's heartbreaking and witty tunes performed by top-tier Chicago talent (under Beckie Menzie's superb music direction), but also gain a deeper appreciation about the messy and fascinating process of creating musicals.
As Kleban learns the hard way, songs can be written alone, but musicals are developed by a team. And as a fellow opinionated introvert, I can completely understand Kleban's struggles with "group work."
As Kleban, Bill Larken captures the artist's inner turmoil as he attempts to reconcile his passion with his perfectionism. Like most great artists, Kleban was more than a touch neurotic. "You're fearful of failure and suspicious of success," says one colleague to Kleban. A commitment-phobe, he also cycled through many relationships, but only one true love -- Sophie (the warm-voiced Tina Gluschenko) -- stuck by his side and served as his muse. And in one of the best numbers from the show, "The Next Best Thing to Love," Sophie levels with Kleban about the limits of their relationship.
A colorful cast under Stacey Flaster's fluid direction efficiently connects Kelban's elating highs and frequent lows. Dana Tretta and Jessica Joy play the part-time love interests, while Sharriese Hamilton is all sass as a driven music producer who views Kleban's talent as a meal ticket. Michael Glenn provides a colorful take on Lehman Engel, a famed Broadway conductor who was Kleban's mentor and first advocate. John Francisco and Zach Spound offer a good dose of eccentric Broadway genius as Michael Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch, respectively.
It's encouraging, and more than a touch melancholy, to see that Kleban's finally getting the recognition he so deeply sought and justly deserved. I guess it's never too late for second chances. You know, what we did for love, and all that.
"A Class Act" plays through October 7 at Theatre Wit. More info here.