Score: Edward Kleban; Script: Linda Kline and Lonny Price. At: Porchlight Music Theatre at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150 or www.porchlightmjusictheatre.org; $39. Runs through: Oct. 7
It's odd that it took so long for the 2001 Broadway musical A Class Act to finally get a Chicago production. However, when you see Porchlight Music Theatre's superlative staging of A Class Act starring an effervescent leading man like Bill Larkin, it's easy to guess why local theater companies shied away from it.
A Class Act is a warts-and-all tribute to master songwriter Edward Kleban (1939-1987), best remembered as the lyricist (with composer Marvin Hamlisch) on the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway blockbuster A Chorus Line. Yet the rest of Kleban's songwriting output was largely unknown until collaborators Linda Kline and Lonny Price fashioned A Class Act into a biographical flashback utilizing his songs.
Understandably, the niche musical-theater subject matter of A Class Act might not attract general audiences. And then there's the leading man playing Kleban, who was a very neurotic New Yorker, a sometime womanizer, a chain smoker and someone who didn't have the common sense to know when to shut up.
Cast the wrong guy as Kleban and then audiences can be easily turned off. And not only must this actor charismatically command the stagehe also must be able to masterfully play the piano like a composer.
Luckily, director/choreographer Stacey Flaster had the foresight to cast Larkin as Kleban. Larkin can be simultaneously lovable and despicable when necessary, and you really do come to care for the guy despite actions that could easily get on your nerves. (For disclosure's sake, I once performed with Larkin in the 2007 Chicago Gay Men's Chorus show Sidetrack V: With a Twist.)
Flaster surrounds Larkin with an extremely vocally strong and versatile ensemble. Each performer gets a moment to shine singing out Kleban's soaring storytelling songs, while Chicago cabaret pro Beckie Menzie backs the whole cast up as a great musical director and onstage accompanist. (Doug Peck fills in for Menzie on Oct. 14.)
The women in the company get some compelling emotional acting moments with Larkin, especially Tina Gluschenko as the songwriter's childhood love, Sophie; Dana Tretta as Kleban's settled-on wife, Lucy; Sharriese Hamilton as the impatient record executive, Felicia; and Jessica Joy as the talent-loving temptress, Mona.
John Francisco makes for a masterfully manipulative take on director/choreographer Michael Bennett, while Michael Glenn offers an amusingly haughty take on songwriting mentor Lehman Engel. Zach Spound also gets laughs as composer Marvin Hamlish (especially in costume designer Bill Morey's very-1970s get-up).
A Class Act insightfully shows the agony of collaboration and how the neuroses of a genius can affect the people he loves. Thank heaven for Porchlight taking a chance on A Class Act, for their production truly shines.