A Class Act
Well, the musical--with a book by director Lonny Price and long-time Kleban girlfriend Linda Kline--has been altered, but there's nothing different enough about the basic material to cause me to revise the unfavorable report I filed here in a November 17, 2000 notice. [Ed. Note: Click here to see the previous review.] I still contend that, in attempting to celebrate Kleban and the outstanding work he did for many unproduced and unsuccessfully produced projects, Price and Kline have, on the contrary, constructed a navel-gazing show-biz tuner about an irritating theater man who, while energetic and determined, is presented as too self-absorbed and fidgety to be likeable.
It matters little that, in a script cluttered with numerous dud gags, the librettists have various characters tell Ed he's a "goddamn poet" and have him say "it's the doing" in life that's important. (Did the driven Kleban really believe and/or announce this bromide?) They've put a man on stage who, they claim, charms everyone he knows despite annoying them and who sabotages every opportunity that comes his way. The catch is, they never dramatize these conflicting aspects of his personality. The audience is merely informed of Kleban's accomplishments and failings by figures from the songwriter's past as they reminisce at a memorial service that Kleban himself attends on leave from the netherworld.
Though the raw material may not have been sharpened on this leg of the show's theatrical existence, the tweaking does raise a question or two worth addressing. And there's one alarming piece of new information that has come to my attention. Throughout Kleban's life, as depicted by Kline and Price, he's involved in a relationship with a woman called Sophie. She's first seen visiting him at an institution to which he committed himself during his college years and where he decides that songwriting is his métier. Sophie, a sometime pal and sometime romantic interest, supports Ed spiritually and, having become a medical researcher, even diagnoses the leukoplakia that eventually rises to cancer and kills him. She's also the one who suggests rather harshly to Kleban, when he can't seem to get any of the shows mounted for which he's written the melodies as well as the words, that perhaps his music isn't as good as his lyrics.
But according to a piece that co-bookwriter Kline wrote about the musical's development, included in press materials for A Class Act, Sophie is a made-up character. If so, what does this say about the veracity of a libretto purporting to reveal Kleban's life accurately? If the audience is asked to believe that, throughout his life, Kleban had one friend who profoundly understood him and didn't mince words, how does learning that this wasn't so affect our trust in what's on offer? "Truth?" the Kleban character is always asking Sophie. "Truth," Sophie always replies. And "Truth," according to David Kaufman's Sunday New York Times piece on the making of A Class Act, is what producer Marty Bell asked of his creators. But what truth? At best, "Sophie" is a hopeful composite of some Kleban friends and maybe even family; at worst, no such close associate was part of Kleban's sorry history, and Price and Kline felt the need to supply one. (Incidentally, no members of Kleban's family figure in the play and nothing of a childhood that may have triggered his myriad phobias is examined. Yet, as also reported in the Kaufman article, it was Kleban's father who made the wounding lyrics-better-than-music crack.)
All right, then. A Class Act has now traipsed a few blocks to Broadway. The changes along the way that call for comment include, first and foremost, some recasting. Four members of the original company--Carolee Carmello, Julia Murney, Jonathan Freeman, and Ray Wills--have left. The four who've joined Lonny Price as Kleban, Randy Graff as Sophie, Nancy Anderson, and David Hibbard (who's still nailing a mean and adorable Michael Bennett) are Jeff Blumenkrantz, Donna Bullock, Patrick Quinn, and Sara Ramirez. (Nancy Anderson, by the way, billed herself as Nancy Kathryn Anderson in the earlier version.) The repeating actors are every bit as good as they were the first time around, as good as the two-dimensional characters allow them to be. Price has strengthened his take on the hyperkinetic Kleban--although, at the press preview I attended, he was having vocal problems. Graff, as the no-nonsense and understanding Sophie, still gets the best audience response with "The Next Best Thing to Love," a Kleban ballad that deserves to be registered in The Great Song Catalogue. The newcomers also do well without distinguishing themselves in any particular way--the script's fault, not theirs.
The sustained response to Graff's solid delivery of her second-act number ought to key the creators in to how far short of the mark too many of Kleban's other first-rate songs hit in this show. A ballad called "Say Something Funny," about the end of an affair, is so broken up for questionable dramatic reasons that its impact is diluted. Also, am I wrong, or has "Under Separate Cover"--another love-gone-wrong song--been tinkered with to diminishing effect? (Attention readers who keep track of items cut from or added to ever-evolving scores: By my calculation, one ditty, "Making My Ways" has been dropped, and three slotted in: "Don't Do It Again," "The Nightmare," and "I Won't Be There." These subtractions and additions make little difference to the show as a whole. The music is now played by a marginally larger band and overseen by musical directed by David Loud, who never allows his surname to dictate his approach.)
Perhaps the biggest question raised by A Class Act on Broadway is: Why? In theory, the Great White Way--and, in particular, a relatively intimate house just west of the thoroughfare--should be hospitable to an eight-actor musical. In the instance of the Kleban tribute, however, the property looks skimpy. It's not entirely lost on the bigger stage with the higher black panels that are the main upstage feature of James Noone's set, but neither does the show seem weighty enough to fill the space. For instance, when the chorus enters during one of the musical's best songs, "Gauguin's Shoes" (from Kleban's ill-fated Gallery), they're an undernourished gang of four.