Everything Is Beautiful In Porchlight’s ‘A Class Act’
[Edward Kleban’s metaphor on creating a musical]
A major musical is this: someone gets hit by a Mack truck and he’s carried into an emergency room. Five or six crazy, egotistical geniuses who have never met are called in to put him together. Now these brilliant weirdos must get along if the patient is to survive. If any organ goes, the patient dies. If the patient survives, that’s a hit musical.
I haven’t seen a production of A Class Act in a few years, the last being the Toronto Civic Light Opera’s sensational staging. But what struck me about Porchlight’s terrific Chicago’s premiere, more than any other incarnation, was how immensely tortured composer/lyricist Edward Kleban actually was and how used and exposed he became by the industry he most treasured. With the recent death of Marvin Hamlisch, Mr. Kleban’s A Chorus Line collaborator, A Class Act reminds us of the shear power musical theatre has on the world and the passion and blood that goes into making a masterpiece.
A Class Act, which is subtitled ‘a musical within a musical’, is a posthumous tribute to Mr. Kleban, a music genius by all extents, whose full potential was never realized, mainly because of his own self sabotage. The story is a brutally honest telling of what transpired in the last twenty years of Kleban’s life and from all accounts, told through his blessing. The keeper of his songs and companion for the last ten years of his life, Linda Kline penned the book, along with the phenomenal Lonny Price (who also played Kleban in the original production) and unapologetically goes through his triumphs and tragedies interwoven with the songs he created, told through the people who had the biggest influences on his life.
A Class Act is a glimpse into an era of the musical theatre industry that, for the most part, no longer exists. With the coming of age of big budget, Hollywood influenced mega-musicals, projects like A Chorus Line would be near to impossible to get funded. This was a time when, to steal from Sondheim, the art of making art was putting it together. For Mr. Kleban, the pieces never quite fit into the bigger puzzle of life. His mentors were among the best of the best, including Lehman Engle, founder of the BMI Theatre Workshop who is credited with allowing Kleban to have his own voice to shine through in his music rather than sell out to the corporate suits. Kleban’s battles within the industry were legendary and they are all told here, warts and all. What Kleban has done in letting his story be told truthfully is to help those struggling with mental illness and give the issue some much needed insight via his riveting and beautiful music and lyrics.
Director Stacey Flaster has deep respect for the man and the material which comes through every second in her production. From the impeccable casting choices, to allowing the actors to find subtle nuanced moments in silences, Ms. Flaster has staged a remarkably poignant and enduring piece of theater. Bill Larsen gives the performance of his lifetime as Mr. Kleban. His comic timing is genius (as usual), but for the first time in many years, Larsen is allowed to stretch his dramatic skills and the outcome is pure gold. So are the other seven who make up the friends, lovers and collaborators who influenced Kleban. John Francisco and Zach Spound are otherworldly as Michael Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch. I literally had goose bumps form when they were on stage in character and shed a few tears as well (the ‘Saint’ next to me must of thought I was crazy).
Michael Glenn is also sensational as Lehman Engle, who sees the potential in Kleban and forces it out of him. Mr. Engle actually passed away five years prior to Kleban, however, for plot purposes, he is alive and well at Kleban’s memorial. Tina Gluschenko is great as the emotionally ravished Sophie who loved Kleban to the end, but wounded him to the core with a comment she makes regarding his music. Sharriese Hamilton vocally dominates her scenes as the corporate suit and Jessica Joy could turn a gay man to straight as Mona. Dana Tretta gives a brava turn as Lucy, who in actuality is Ms. Kline, the shows co-author. Tretta shows what it is like to love a broken and tortured genius and the sacrifice and toll it takes.
Add to this the incomparable Beckie Menzie (god I miss the old Gentry on Rush St. now) as musical director and accompanist and you have an evening in which lovers of the musical will be in theater heaven. Note: Porchlight Artistic Associate Doug Peck plays performances Sept 7, 8 & 9 and Oct 7.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s Chicago premiere of A Class Act, runs through October 7, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Please note: there is no 4 p.m. performance, Saturday, Sept. 8. Tickets are $30 for previews and $39 for all other performances. Subscriptions to the entire 18th Season, student, senior and group discounts are available. Purchase Season Subscriptions at porchlightmusictheatre.org or by phone at 773-777-9884. Single tickets for A Class Act may be purchased at theaterwit.org, or by phone at 773-975-8150 .