By Ron Fassler . . .
The mission statement of the J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company states their intention to bring back three lesser known Broadway musicals a season with minimal design elements and reduced orchestrations in much the way Encores!, the York Theater Company’s Musicals in Mufti series, and the long gone (but not to be forgotten) Equity Library Theatre once did. Spotlight is not only admirable in their solid choices of titles, but in the hands of Jim Jimirro (Executive Producer) and Robert W. Schneider (Artistic Director) they are being executed with excellence.
In early 2020, the first two shows of their inaugural season were Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Michael Bennett’s Seesaw, and Richard Rodgers’ and Samuel Taylor’s No Strings (those reviews can be found here and here). The third was Ed Kleban’s A Class Act, with a book by Lonny Price and Linda Kline. But their first performance on March 12th never happened due to that evening’s pandemic shut down of all theatre for much longer than anyone first anticipated. Now, a month shy of two years later, we finally get (happily with the same company) the first New York revival of A Class Act since 2001. This small but mighty musical had the misfortune of opening in the same season as the lushly entertaining revival of 42nd Street, the sublime Full Monty, and the runaway smash of the new century The Producers. Though nominated for five Tony Awards, A Class Act was swamped by the all-time record of twelve trophies set that night by The Producers.
It’s a pleasure to report that A Class Act (subtitled originally as “A Musical About Musicals) is the best of the Spotlights I’ve seen to date. Fond memories of the original made it feel like I was catching up with an old friend, even after twenty-one years. To begin with, the whole show is a love letter, written in devotion to a troubled soul who had increased difficulty over the years in following his star (as one of the songs puts it so beautifully). When the idea was hatched to create a musical about Ed Kleban (most famous for having written the clever and pitch-perfect lyrics to A Chorus Line), the concept was to have all the songs be from the massive volume of songs he left behind, either utilized in shows that died quickly or never got produced at all. Most times, out-of-context material originally written specifically for characters don’t work in a revue format. They feel wedged in, or worse, dropped from the sky. But this is not a revue and by writing rich characters to surround the character of Kleban, the songs chosen for A Class Act all have purpose and integrity that serve the story well. Linda Kline, Kleban’s longtime companion, in concert with Lonny Price (who also directed and starred in the original production), created a partnership for what is a very special show, aided mainly by Kleban’s expert craftsmanship as a songwriter.
Set at his funeral (he died of cancer in 1987 at the far-too-young age of forty-eight), Kleban makes his appearance with, as the lyric goes, “a Thornton Wilder return.” Thus, this unreliable narrator tells his own life story, only to be subverted all evening by his faithful group of friends with helpful corrections. As in any good musical, a good book is essential and here is where A Class Act really wins its points by being poignant, funny, bracing, elegant and fun. Robert W. Schneider’s production, done on a shoestring with loving affection and great heart, is exactly what the theatre needs right now: a show to rekindle what is so special about the Broadway musical (even when it’s done off-Broadway in a 99-seat house).
The cast is superbly headed up by Andy Tighe in the tricky role of Ed Kleban. Memorable in 2020’s Spotlight production of Seesaw, his vibrant and pleasant voice is most welcome here and Tighe isn’t afraid to shy away from the tics and quirks that made Kleban such a singular sensation (sorry, couldn’t help myself). He is joined by some sensational women with the standouts being Christina Carlucci’s Lucy, Leeana Rubin’s Felicia, and Alaina Mills’ Sophie. Terrific voices aided by spot-on characterizations and led by wonderful physicality; the whole company brings their best game to the proceedings. I also particularly enjoyed Eric Michael Gillett’s Lehman Engel (a brilliant teacher, conductor and musical director who loomed large in Kleban’s life) and in multiple roles Andrew Leggieri, with his neurotic Marvin Hamlisch, composer of A Chorus Line, especially winning. Special mention should be made of Amandina Altomare and Jesse Manocherian who round out the cast.
The small and efficient band, under Miles Plant’s musical direction, is quite good. His piano is accompanied by Nicholas Ubanic on percussion and Charlie Barber on trumpet (used most effectively at times). Skizzo Arnedillo’s choreography makes the most of the small stage and utilizes elements of the famous Bennett Chorus Line dance moves to good effect.
Any lover of musical theatre should not miss the chance to see a rare and exceptional production of A Class Act, a total delight from start to finish.
A Class Act, running thru February 20th, is the first of three productions opening back-to-back-to-back. Next up is A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (February 24-March 6)followed by The Baker’s Wife (March 10-20). All play Theatre Row, Theatre 2, at 410 W 42nd Street.
Tickets may be purchased at the J2 Spotlight website: https://www.j2spotlightnyc.com