(On Broadway)

Music and Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price
Directed by and starring Mr. Price
Ambassador Theatre / 219 West 49th Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

The great thing about reviews online is, they remain available to the reader for as long as the ’zine keeps the links active—and a critic like your humble correspondent can re-review an event worthy of re-appraisal without doing what in Hollywood is called a "page one rewrite." Normally this isn’t much of an issue, but "A Class Act", the musical based on the life and work of Edward Kleban, was the subject of an especially long rumination by me upon its initial opening earlier this season at The Manhattan Theatre Club, for a limited engagement that would lead to the current open-ended Broadway transfer that has just landed at the Ambassador Theatre.

So rather than offering a full, long appraisal again, this new notice appears as an addendum to the first—a comment on what has changed (which amounts to a good deal, as transfers go). Click on this link to take you to the original MTC review, if you haven’t read it yet, or need a refresher. Bottom of that one, there’ll be another link, to bring you back here. See you in a bit. And you others—soldier on…

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Perhaps the biggest and most consequential change wrought upon "A Class Act" is the chemical one of venue. Whereas most smallish musicals suffer from a loss of intimacy when they move to a big house, "A Class Act" seems, conversely, to grow into its proper size and shape—as if Broadway were always its ultimate aim (which is probably the truth). The broader playing style no longer seems quaint (very traditional, yes; quaint, no), and there is even a geographical inversion-effect that serves the piece well. To borrow the observation of a clever theatre-man named David Shine, at MTC, despite the framing device of Ed’s Shubert Theatre memorial, the intimacy and configuration of the space gave the impression of the B.M.I. Workshop classroom being the show’s center, opening out into other arenas. Whereas at the Ambassador, a big Broadway house does seem the story’s root venue, and the classroom becomes, in righter proportion, one of several branches on the tree.

Another change, that may be, again, more about the chemical composition of material and venue than to any fundamental reconception, is in the impact of Lonny Price’s performance as Ed. It too seems better in a Broadway house. You’d still be hard-pressed to say that Lonny is in any way the essence of the Ed, but he has certainly become more than viable as the show’s Ed, which, in the end, is all that matters to an audience. Nor is the performance merely enhanced by change of venue; it has been subtly refined and shaded—even the chemistry between him and Randy Graff—so conspicuously absent at MTC—has become palpable. It’s more the shared vibe of deep friendship than that of romance…but since that’s where the relationship between the characters evolves anyway, one can’t complain.

The script, by Price and Linda Kline, has been tightened as well, the trajectory of Ed’s odyssey and psychology made a little clearer, a little cleaner—even the more labored "insider" speeches (generally to be found in the section on "A Chorus Line"), which seem unchanged, register less starkly now.

Scenically, too, "A Class Act" has changed. MTC’s Stage II space was used, for all intents and purposes, as a black box—but the Ambassador expands upon the basic design, using drops and projections to give the feel of backstage Broadway. An especially arresting effect occurs in Act Two, following the success of "A Chorus Line", as the unproduced shows of Ed’s career pile up: as each one is mentioned, its name is projected against the back wall as a logo within a theatre marquee. When the titles have all been listed, the wall is a virtual skyline of the shows that might have been.

Half the eight-member cast is new as well—joining the ensemble are Jeff Blumenkrantz (as Charley and later Marvin Hamlisch), Donna Bullock (as Lisa, the woman Ed winds up with), Sara Ramirez (as the ball-busting record executive Felicia, who also carries a newly-inserted song ["Don’t Do It Again"] to further particularize the character), and Patrick Quinn as Lehman Engel. They’re all terrific, with the differences, if they matter, being that Blumenkrantz is sillier and less intense than his predecessor; Bullock is warmer than hers (and sporting a more modest hairstyle that no longer links the character to the real-life woman who isn’t her prototype anyway); Ramirez isn’t just a withering lady executive, she’s a traffic-stopping Amazon into the bargain…and Mr. Quinn, for all that he is a very different performer than his predecessor Jonathan Freeman, gives a performance that registers as uncannily identical.

It’s rare that a show improves conspicuously upon transfer to a larger arena, but "A Class Act" has managed to do it—in part because it has found its natural configuration, and in part because Mr. Price and his cohorts were not content to leave well enough "frozen."

And upon second viewing, "A Class Act", in celebrating Ed’s artistic passion, is so vigorously a manifesto for the return of real craft in mainstream musicals, it may be one of those rare birds that really does make things better for everybody.

And I can’t imagine what would have made Ed happier than that…

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