Edward Kleban would have turned 71 on the opening night of the Footlight Players’ production of A Class Act. The musical celebrates the life of the songwriter, best known for the Broadway hit A Chorus Line. Through a series of song and dance numbers taken from Kleban’s unproduced musicals, A Class Act gives a unique insider’s perspective into what it takes to succeed in the competitive world of musical theater.
The play opens at the end of Kleban’s story: his funeral. His close friends — and there aren’t many — have gathered to lament his life. The ghost of Kleban, played convincingly by Robbie Thomas, waltzes in unbeknownst to his guests, performing a spirited rendition of “Light on My Feet,” a ditty which reappears throughout the show as Kleban’s rarely realized motto. Kleban’s enthusiasm fades as his guests’ attentions shift from idealized memories to reality, and we learn that Kleban was as difficult and troubled as he was talented.
Kleban’s childhood sweetheart and lifetime muse Sophie, played by the charming Elizabeth Ferraro, appears to Kleban’s befuddled ghost and forces him to look honestly at his life. They travel to a New York mental hospital where an 18-year-old Kleban has been committed after having a breakdown while studying at Columbia University. Sophie, a Bryn Mawr student, has visited him, and he professes his love to her before sharing his newfound passion: songwriting.
We continue to follow Kleban as he matures into a young adult, working as a producer at Columbia Records and spending every free second writing songs. A rousing number called “Fridays at Four” introduces the audience to Musical Comedy Class, the workshop where Kleban meets his colorful circle of Broadway friends. “Mona,” a strong seduction number performed by a talented Katherine Koehler, demonstrates Kleban’s weakness for women and marks the end of his romantic relationship with Sophie.
The audience travels on a roller coaster ride with Kleban, where every success is immediately succeeded by a crashing fall. His delicate mental state is explored at length, and the songs and story begin to feel redundant.
In the second half, the mood is elevated when Kleban scores his defining gig, writing the lyrics for A Chorus Line. The musical, however, brings a new fear to the painfully phobic composer: living up to its success. In his increasingly obsessive efforts to match the show’s glory, Kleban becomes reclusive and cruel. He looks to his muse Sophie and his adoring but painfully unappreciated girlfriend Lucy (Caroline Boegel), whose loyalty to him the audience is left struggling to understand.
Robert Ivey’s skillful direction demonstrates compassion for Kleban, and the cast does a strong job of portraying Kleban’s growth from troubled teenager at the start of his career to insecure adult at the end. While Thomas’ singing is frequently overwhelmed by the music, strong vocals from the ladies hold the songs together.
As Sophie so candidly tells Kleban at the end of his life as he’s searching for another hit, perhaps he is a better lyricist than composer and would experience more success if he accepted this. Sophie’s criticism is on the mark and explains why the music in A Class Act is underwhelming compared to A Chorus Line — of which, frustratingly, only a handful of excerpts are performed. Though the narrative is effective, this occasionally overwrought musical makes us appreciate that Kleban’s legacy best lives on in A Chorus Line and that “one singular sensation” was enough after all.