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A Class Act

by on 6 June 2018

 

Master Class

A Class Act

by Edward Kleban, based on book by Linda Kline and Loony Price

BROS Theatre Company, Hampton Hill Theatre until 9th June

A Review by Celia Bard

I was delighted to attend BROS’s first night production of A Class Act showing at the Hampton Hill Theatre. Described as a musical within a musical the show provides a tantalising glimpse into the creative process that brings a musical to life on the stage. The narrative framework written by Linda Kline and Lonny Price incorporates lyrics and music composed by Ed Kleban, on whose life the musical is based.

This composer-lyricist died aged just 48 in 1987, leaving behind a trunk filled with songs written for musicals, but which were never used, that is until his friends decide to hold a memorial service for him at the Schubert Theatre. A Class Act offers a wonderful example of how fantasy and reality can fuse together. Albeit making his first entrance in an urn, Ed then transmutes into a full-bodied apparition, providing a great opportunity for him and his friends through flashback to reflect on his life and music, his struggles with neurosis and how this impedes his professional and musical pursuits.

Ed Kleban

Ed’s ensemble of friends includes: Lehman Engel, the forthright and celebrated head of the song writing workshop; Michael Bennett, the energetic, highly charged director and choreographer of Chorus Line; Bobby, highly critical but best friend of Ed; Sophie, Ed’s oldest friend and first love; Lucy, Ed’s important other and member of the BMI workshop as well as Mona and Felicia, two of his other love interests, the latter becoming the tough administrator at Columbia records and Ed’s boss.

This was a high-octane performance from all the cast mirroring the high and lows of the life of the show’s protagonist, Ed Kleban, brilliantly played by Chris Morris. In many respects Ed is an unlikely candidate for a lead, neurotic, overweight, over sensitive, self-obsessed and a heavy smoker to boot, characteristics outlined by his friends in the opening scene, which Ed is forced to listen to. However, he projects an acute vulnerability, and this combined with his musical talent and sensitivity makes him attractive to women, which he has no qualms about exploiting. Chris Morris is superb in this role, plummeting into depths of despair as well as experiencing the dizzy heights of success, albeit for a short time. He is a performer not afraid to miss a note when overcame by emotion. He delivers all his musical numbers with great confidence and conviction. One song which especially stands out is his duet with Sophie One More Beautiful Song which provides great insight into the strong emotional bonds existing between the two. At the end of the show Kleban, overcoming his annoyance with Sophie, admits that she was his real inspiration.

Tracy Sogriovanni does not disappoint as the dedicated research scientist, Sophie. She is the truthful, long-suffering, loyal friend, ex-lover of Ed who provides him with the motivation to pursue his musical career, but she is brutally honest with him, and it is this that causes a rift in their relationship. Tracy is splendid in this role. Through both her acting and singing she succeeds in conveying a tremendous depth of feeling for Kleban, though it isn’t love. Brutal as she is with Ed she is also brutal about herself in regard to the feelings she holds for him, and this is beautifully expressed in Tracy’s wonderful rendering of the song, The Next Best Thing to Love. They have ‘the smile’, they have ‘the time’, they enjoy a ‘multitude of lovely summer afternoons’, but it isn’t love. Eventually they have to let it go.

Another of Ed’s love interest is Lucy Chaprakowski played by Nicola Cane, and she provides the emotional comfort that he craves for. She is encouraging but in a different way to Sophie. This is very evident in the musical number, Follow Your Star, which she sings with great sensitivity. It comes as no surprise that it is to Lucy whom Ed requests that she reads out his wishes after his death, including a final request that the number, Self Portrait, which in many ways is a summation of the whole of his life, and a desire that everyone get to know him, should be left to the world of musical theatre.

All the performances are excellent and extremely believable, but it is worth noting Carl Smith, who gives a most admired and self-assured performance as Lehman Engel, the music workshop director, totally devoted to his students, very caring of Ed and well versed in all genres of music as observed in his easy delivery of Charm Song. He has some wonderful, witty lines which he delivers with aplomb. His attempts to empathise with Ed fall on deaf ears, though not the ears of the audience, when he describes what it’s like living the life of a gay Jewish man.

Mention too must be made of Georgina Skinner who displays real star quality in her portrayal of Mona, especially in the bedroom scene with Ed and her sensual, double entendre rendition of the song, Mona.

Louise Ellard-Turnbull as Felicia Lipshitz lives up to her name when she delivers a knock out performance of Don’t Do It Again, in which she and her black and white dress make a strong statement as to who is the boss.

Jonathan Warriss-Simmons gives a tantalising cameo appearance as Marvis Hamlisch, composer of Chorus Line, teasing the audience with a few bars of his wonderful singing voice while he sits at the piano in animated conversation with Ed.

All performers fully inhabit an uncluttered stage allowing for slick scene changes and some brilliantly executed choreography as seen in the company’s rendition of Gaugin’s Shoes, a highly imaginative sequence of dance and movement, totally in keeping with one of the central themes of the musical, Gallery, a musical written by Ed Kleban, but which was never performed.

The technical aspects of this production are impressive. The relative small acting area is given a feeling of great depth and space by the construction of the set on the diagonal, leading your eye to the deepest part of the set. A sense of time and place is provided by the carefully selected visual images of different settings and this works well, e.g. an image of the gardens attached to a mental hospital, images of a theatre interior, Paris, all coincided with what was happening to Ed in his life.

The music and lyrics span the decades through which the story progresses from old style Broadway to 1970’s pop. They very much highlight Kleban’s mood swings throughout the production, creating a symbiosis between his emotions and his music and lyrics.

A Class Act is a production well worth seeing, I must admit it left me with a strong feeling of admiration for the whole of the cast and the production team, and for Ed Kleban’s music, which I found effervescent and tuneful, accompanied by some very insightful and thoughtful lyrics. A great production, a great story and great music.

Celia Bard
June 2018

Photography by Schmaltz

 

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