- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

What a world this would be if every memorial service were as zippy as “A Class Act.” A tribute to the late Edward Kleban, the Broadway composer and lyricist best known for his collaboration with Marvin Hamlisch on “A Chorus Line,” the show is an upbeat coda to an often downbeat life and career.

For all of his shimmering talent, Mr. Kleban was cursed with phobias, high anxiety and hypochondria, suffering his first nervous breakdown at age 18. He was a perfectionist, hard on everyone and most tyrannical with himself. He died of cancer at 48, leaving behind a trunk full of sparkling songs that were seldom — if ever — heard. Many of these songs form the basis of “A Class Act,” a musical revue now at the Studio Theatre through June 22.

Mr. Kleban was a guy, who, given his big break rewriting songs for a 1970s revival of “Irene” starring Debbie Reynolds, decided that the director — Sir John Gielgud — needed to be taught a thing or two about the theater. Mr. Gielgud fired him.

You have to admire that kind of chutzpah — or craziness. Both are on generous display in “A Class Act,” which is directed with aggressive cheerfulness by Studio’s Serge Seiden with musical direction by George Fulginiti-Shakar, who did an outstanding job earlier this season at Arena Stage with “South Pacific.”

“Class” is structured as a memorial service to Mr. Kleban organized by his friends at New York City’s Shubert Theatre. The famed venue’s gilded ironwork and balustrades are cleverly evoked in Russell Metheny’s set. A marvel of economy and design, it comfortably accommodates not only eight performers, but also a five-piece orchestra floating majestically across the stage.

Mr. Kleban, played with hound-dog vulnerability by Bobby Smith (if he had floppy ears, you’d want to scratch them), is also a guest making what he dryly calls “a Thornton Wilder return” at his memorial service. “Nobody gets me,” he laments, and part of the reason he is at the tribute is to make sure the eulogies are accurate.

While Mr. Kleban could, in Steven Sondheim’s words, drive a person crazy, the cast of gathered friends (played by Lauri Kraft, Tony Capone, Mia Whang, Lee Erickson and Cathy Carey) decides to focus on his endearing and adorable qualities rather than his stubborn self-destructive streak. “A Class Act” takes us through Mr. Kleban’s life, from his first stint in the booby hatch — where he is supported by his softhearted, truth-telling girlfriend, Sophie (Roseanne Medina) — through his years in the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, where he makes lifelong friends.

In this workshop, Mr. Kleban came up with the idea for a musical, titled “Gallery,” based on famous works of art. The never-produced musical boasts the song “Paris Through the Window,” about a teenager seeing Paris for the first time. Full of the awkwardness, exhilaration and seesawing emotions of adolescence, the song exemplifies Mr. Kleban’s acuity at pinpointing feelings. Mr. Kleban’s witty lyrics and precise rhyme schemes never seem to draw too much attention to themselves, and the same goes for his music, which is sophisticated and lilting without seeming arch.

The show, with its difficult hero and depressing subject matter, recalls another semi-autobiographical musical that Studio staged last season, William Finn’s “A New Brain.” Mr. Finn’s play confronted his near-death experience after a brain abnormality, while “A Class Act” deals with death and a career that fizzled after a spectacular start.

Both musicals handle their respective tragedies with considerable grace. Mr. Finn survives his trauma and becomes a better person for it. By contrast, in “Class,” Mr. Kleban is dead from the start, limiting the show to asking unanswerable hypotheticals, such as whether it was fair that he died so young (and horribly, from mouth cancer), before he could see much of his work produced.

Mr. Seiden tries to offset the bleakness by goosing up the cast to such turbo-perkiness that you worry about everybody hyperventilating. They outdo “Up With People” in the pep department, selling each number as if it were a new long-distance dialing plan.

When the cast softens the hard sell, the show takes off. Miss Carey is confident and struttingly sexy in the song “Mona,” about a fictional “small town” where there are soft shoulders and many signs that read “Yield.” Miss Kraft lends a no-nonsense authority to the songs “Under Separate Cover,” a deceptively perfunctory list of forwarded items sent by a freshly divorced wife to her former husband, and “I Choose You.”

For the most part, however, there is an almost desperate — and self-defeating — insistence on Mr. Kleban’s status as a neglected genius. Relax, everybody, and just sing the songs and quit trying to convince the audience that a musical about Edward Kleban is worth doing.

**1/2

WHAT: “A Class Act” by Edward Kleban, Linda Kline and Lonny Price

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 22.

TICKETS: $25 to $44.25

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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