Class Dismissed

A Class Act at Theatre Three starts with a bad premise and ends on a sour note

When a show begins with a funeral, watch out. A Class Act, a musical bio about troubled Broadway composer-lyricist Ed Kleban (now playing at Theatre Three), starts and ends at a fictional memorial service for Kleban at the Shubert Theatre in 1987 (his real memorial that year took place in a much smaller space in the Public Theatre in Lower Manhattan).

Kleban died at 48 of cancer, leaving hundreds of unproduced songs that he'd written over several decades. In his will he instructed his friends to do something with them. This show, a two-hour singing and dancing eulogy, is the result.

It's probably not the glowing tribute he'd hoped for.

The cast of A Class Act lends its voices to lots of rotten songs.
Andy Hanson
The cast of A Class Act lends its voices to lots of rotten songs.

The book for A Class Act was written by Linda Kline and Lonny Price, a Kleban friend who played him in the short-lived Broadway run of this show last year. Structured around funeral speeches delivered by eight of Kleban's friends (including, oddly, one who had died years before Kleban), the show has as much warmth and heart as a marble mausoleum. The "friends" don't so much hail their departed companion as trash him, exposing him warts and all for the world to judge.

"The money ruined him,'' says one. "He never realized his potential,'' says another. And those are the nice comments.

Each speech cues a flashback to corresponding scenes from Kleban's life. Each of those scenes comes with two or three songs from Kleban's vast repertoire of rejected compositions.

Amid this medley of non-hits stands Kleban, a less than cuddly character. As portrayed at Theatre Three by Doug Jackson, Kleban is a prickly, pear-shaped nebbish, chain-smoking and whining and crumpling under titanic bouts of depression--think George Costanza without the charm. As recounted in the show, he slides in and out of institutions. He can't sustain relationships. Even his best friends keep him at arm's length lest his incessant neediness drain their energies. (Michael Serrecchia, who directed A Class Act for Theatre Three, was an acquaintance of Kleban's, so we must assume he's helped actor Jackson draw an accurate profile.)

Certainly Kleban's career troubles contributed to his multitude of quirks. All his life he dreamed of becoming the next Gershwin or Sondheim. By day he worked as a producer of Jim Nabors Christmas albums and Percy Faith best-of collections at Columbia Records. At night he studied at the famed BMI workshop for musical theater composers. He wrote and wrote and wrote. Anything, everything was inspiration. If he sneezed, he banged out a ballad about it. If he tripped over a curb, he used it for an up-tempo "charm song.''

But his solo stuff wasn't charming or memorable, as evidenced by the 14 Kleban tunes used in A Class Act. Most are from musicals he wrote that either flopped or never made it to a stage.

For years he worked on a musical called Galleries, which paid tribute to great artists. "Were I in Gauguin's shoes/What would I have to lose?" go the words to one number. He tried musical versions of the film The Heartbreak Kidand Herb Gardner's play A Thousand Clowns. They failed. And with lyrics such as "Hansel and Gretel jumped over a shtetl,'' it's no wonder.

He finally hit the big time in 1977 when he was picked by choreographer Michael Bennett to team up with Oscar-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch as the lyricist for a workshop production about Broadway dancers. That show would become A Chorus Line. Kleban and Hamlisch disliked each other, at least according to A Class Act (their scenes together are the best part of the show), but nevertheless were able to put together a singular sensation of a score. A Chorus Line won all the Tonys and earned Kleban a Pulitzer for his lyrics. (A Chorus Line now is onstage at the Plano Repertory Theatre and will be reviewed in this column next week.)

Not surprisingly, the best number in A Class Act is the brilliantly syncopated showstopper "One'' from A Chorus Line. Kleban's words for A Chorus Line were the best he ever produced (the show was still running when he died in '87). With the story told almost entirely in the score, he had to use the song lyrics to move the plot along and illuminate a large cast of characters. He did it in exquisitely pop-poetic fashion. "Kiss today goodbye/And point me toward tomorrow,'' Kleban wrote for the show's big hit, "What I Did for Love.'' "We did what we had to do/Won't forget, can't regret/What I did for love.'' (There were at least two other uncredited librettists for A Chorus Line, but that's another story.)

A Chorus Line brought Kleban the money and fame he'd longed for, but it didn't make him happy. His many neuroses went into overdrive after the show opened, and he became a recluse, terrified of elevators, airplanes and girlfriends. Then he got mouth cancer and died young.

So what you have here, then, is a musical with mostly terrible music based on the life of an unhappy, unattractive fellow who failed at nearly everything and alienated all the people who tried to help him. Even Springtime for Hitlerhad good tunes and plenty of laughs.

Theatre Three takes a concept already rife with weaknesses and adds amateurish production values. Jac Alder's set, a collection of incongruous wheeled cubes and flimsy flats, looks cheap and slapdash. Costumer Patty Korbelic Williams forces the four actors and four actresses to wear outfits meant to evoke the '60s and '70s but that are all two sizes too small and in almost every case are as unflattering to the wearer as possible (hint: White stockings make even the shapeliest leg look like a bleached ham hock).

Serrecchia's direction is confused, with characters popping up in odd places all over the theater, and he lets some actors wildly upstage others. And here's the clincher: Although both the Kleban and Hamlisch characters are supposed to play the onstage piano, actors Doug Jackson and Jon Paul Burkhart don't really hit the keys. They mime it (not well) as musical director Terry Dobson, sitting in a corner above the stage area, provides the real ivory-tinkling. This silliness damages the authenticity of the performances and is terribly distracting, especially considering that in Theatre Three's in-the-round space there's no way to hide the subterfuge from the eyes of the audience.

As for other performances, singer-actors Julie Stirman and Jennifer Freeman (last seen joined at the hip in Theatre Three's fine production of Side Show) lend their lovely voices to lots of rotten songs. Candace Evans as Kleban's loyal doctor-friend Sophie manages to make an icy woman seem sympathetic, and she sings fine, too.

Kyle McClaran, as Lehman Engel, the legendary founder of the BMI workshop, minces and camps like a fat old poof. It was so nice when he wasn't onstage.

In a scene at the workshop, Kleban instructs young composers on the rules of writing for musical theater. "No. 1: Be Interesting," he tells them. The writers of A Class Actand the director and designers of this particular production seem to have ignored Rule No. 2: "Never forget Rule No. 1."

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