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DATING DIFFICULTIES: Sophie (Heather Diaforli) visits the young Ed (James Perri) at the mental institution where he is temporarily confined in "A Class Act," the musical biography of lyricist and composer Ed Kleban, playing through August 14 at Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell.
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Off-Broadstreet Presents a Love Letter to Musical Theater: "A Class Act" Sings and Dances Through the Life of Ed Kleban

Donald Gilpin

A Class Act, currently playing at Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell, is the musical biography of Ed Kleban, creator of the lyrics for A Chorus Line and also the composer of many unproduced songs and several musicals. Mr. Kleban, who died of cancer in 1987 at the age of 48, led a troubled life, rich in its conflict and complexity.

A Class Act (2000) first found success at The Manhattan Theatre Club and then (to a lesser degree) on Broadway where it ran for 105 performances and was nominated for five Tony Awards. The show is a love letter to musical theater, crafted by Linda Kline and Lonny Price from more than twenty different Kleban songs and providing a moving saga of the struggles in the life and career of this brilliantly talented, neurotic, persevering and difficult theater creator. As his mentor Lehman Engel (Tom Chiola) laments, "Ed sabotaged every opportunity that ever came his way."

Through thirteen scenes and two acts – presented within the frame of a 1988 memorial service, A Class Act follows Mr. Kleban's life from his stay in a psychiatric hospital at age eighteen through his long and productive association with the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, his conflict-ridden years as a producer at Columbia Records, his tumultuous love life (four different women featured here), his moment of fame as lyricist for A Chorus Line, his frustrating struggle to see one of his own musicals produced on Broadway, and the final illness leading to his death.

The material here, musical and dramatic, has much to recommend it. The eight-member cast led by James Perri in the role of Ed is poised, strong and appealing. The three-piece orchestra is capable and effective. And Robert Thick has directed with his usual deft, tasteful touch, coordinating production elements smoothly and keeping the action flowing from scene to scene at a lively engaging pace.

Not surprisingly, the highlight of the evening comes in the second-act dramatization of events surrounding the genesis of A Chorus Line (1975), focusing on Mr. Kleban's prickly, often humorous collaborations with director Michael Bennett (Walt Cupit) and composer Marvin Hamlisch (Edward Egan). Classic numbers from A Chorus Line – "At the Ballet," "What I Did for Love" and "One (Singular Sensation)" – gradually take shape here, as Mr. Perri and company reveal the artistic process of creating one of Broadway's greatest and longest running shows of all time.

Members of the ensemble pointedly question what happened to Mr. Kleban's career after A Chorus Line: "after Chorus Line, something happened ... 'cause after Chorus Line nothing happened." Sophie (Heather Diaforli), his oldest friend and perennial love interest, even delivers to Ed the unpopular opinion that "maybe your music isn't as good as your lyrics." Audiences watching A Class Act may reach the same conclusion. As worthy, loving and intelligent as much of the material here is, and as skillfully as Mr. Thick and company have put together this Off-Broadstreet production, the quality of the musical compositions is uneven. The subject matter – this eccentric life – despite its compelling interest for musical theater mavens, also becomes overly sentimentalized and banal at times, especially in the gloomy final scenes.

In addition to the Chorus Line scenes, some of the finest moments of the evening include Sarah Fenty-Pettorsson's rousing rendition of a young actress auditioning for jobs in "Broadway Boogie Woogie" and her touching "I Choose You," in a quieter, romantic vein with Mr. Perri. "The Next Best Thing to Love" provides another memorable romantic moment in Ms. Diaforli's poignant, melodious reflection on Sophie's relationship with Ed. Both actresses possess first-rate voices and are convincing, appealing, and on-target in their characterizations in this somewhat fictionalized dramatization of Mr. Kleban's life and loves.

Mr. Perri performs a couple of tuneful, entertaining character numbers, describing how he stays "Light on My Feet," then, in the catchy and clever soft-shoe piece "Gauguin's Shoes," arguing how he can follow the French artist's example and give up a financially profitable career to pursue his artistic passions. Charismatic, quirky and deft in dancing, singing and acting, Mr. Perri provides a strong centerpiece for the production, presenting this admirable character who is not always likeable, but seldom fails to be interesting.

Mr. Cupit, in addition to his brief stint as Michael Bennett, successfully depicts the amusing and plain-speaking Bobby, Ed's life-long friend from the Musical Theatre Workshop class. Mr. Egan takes off his 1970's Marvin Hamlisch wig to lend expert support as the clean-cut Charley (another Theatre Workshop friend) and in other roles.

Lauren McGowan and Lauren Brader portray two other Theatre Workshop members and longtime friends of Mr. Kleban. Ms. McGowan presents the sultry seductress Mona and Ms Brader the aggressive businesswoman Felicia, both of whose lives interweave with Ed's in combinations of romance and discord.

Tom Chiola is excellent – articulate, dynamic, and consistent in character – as the colorful Lehman, Mr. Kleban's mentor and teacher of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop.

The musical ensemble – Ken Howard on piano, Steve Pasierb on bass and Jon Cooper on percussion – provides adept, professional accompaniment, coordinating effectively with the singers, who deliver the lyrics with clarity and affecting expression.

Mr. Thick's set and lighting are appropriately simple, with only a lectern on stage right (for the memorial service), a piano onstage throughout, and blocks and benches unobtrusively brought on as required. Julia Thick's choreography is clear, lively and engaging, and Ann Raymond's numerous costumes provide further help in delineating character and setting.

"Words and music. I love them. And especially when you put them together," Ed Kleban once wrote. A Class Act provides lovers of musical theater with a privileged glimpse into the life of this talented, eccentric artist who spent his life engaged in the process of putting words and music together. Finally, posthumously, his dream of a production of his own musical has been fulfilled.

A Class Act will play through August 14 in Hopewell, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Call (609) 466-2766 for information.


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