You've likely never heard of or, at a minimum, you've forgotten about Edward Kleban, the one-hit-wonder lyricist for "A Chorus Line" who died from a cancer at age 48 with his lyrics known but without ever realizing his long-held ambition of hearing music he composed played on a Broadway stage.
Kleban was a nebbish and a neurotic, famous for not speaking to his friends. But he was a theater person's theater person. Civilians may flock to celebrities and flashy, TV-ready songwriters like Andrew Lloyd Webber. Theater people tend to prefer characters, especially oddballs with a dry sense of humor who can't help but pour their souls into their work.
"A Class Act," a musical (music and lyrics by Kleban) that enjoyed a brief sojourn on Broadway in 2001, thus posthumously fulfilling Kleban's ambition, was penned by Kleban's friends Linda Kline and Lonny Price, a creative outlet, you might say, for their sorrow at their loss of a friend. The Kleban songs were originally written for other things, even if most of them sat at the bottom of his trunk. It is set at Kleban's memorial service and then moves through his life: his early years struggling with his mental health; his middle years struggling with his songwriting; his later years weighed down by the pressure of following up on a mega-hit; all his years spent in complexities with women. The writers fell over themselves to avoid making this a sentimental hagiography, and Kleban's caustic personality provided much assistance there. But their love shines through.
"A Class Act" is finally getting its first Chicago production — Kleban was never a name to light up the hinterlands — by the Porchlight Music Theatre. Since the recently deceased composer Marvin Hamlisch is a character in this piece, the sense of loss is doubled and timeliness re-established. Still, in Chicago in 2012, this show will live or die based on how successful it can be in making Kleban a metaphor for the average Joe or Jane, struggling, not least against their own doubts and tendency to self-destruct, to realize their own ambitions or, as the political conventioneers prefer to say, their own dreams. This show is more honest than the Republicans or Democrats, probing the reality that just because we dream of doing something does not mean someone wants to pay us good money to listen.
Thanks in no small measure to a remarkable performance from Bill Larkin, who throws himself into the role of Kleban with the kind of weirdly compulsive relish Kleban surely would have understood, Stacey Flaster's intimate staging manages precisely that (a small, off-Loop production feels apt, given the material). By the end of the night, whether you're a bricklayer or a trader, you'll surely see yourself in Kleban's struggles in life and love.
This is not a perfect piece of dramaturgy by any means; some of the repeated devices and motifs clunk along, and there are gaping, awkward holes in some of the dialogue sections that Flaster does not fill with sufficient veracity.
So "A Class Act" takes a good while to kick in. It's like slowly opening a rusty trunk. But once revealed, the score is full of gorgeous music, as well sung by this Porchlight cast as any Porchlight show these past two decades has been sung. Many putting-it-together shows of this type rely on stringing together songs that people already know. "A Class Act" is about the discovery of songs you don't know. Songs like "Paris Through the Window," "I Choose You" and, especially, "The Next Best Thing to Love" thus arrive in lush, melodic waves. If you're a fan of serious musical theater, you'll recognize both the quality of their form (Kleban was a notorious perfectionist) and their inherent sense of longing, their constituent desire to make sense of the world.
Flaster has cast the piece exceptionally well, with actors of strikingly different types. The spunky Dana Tretta, at her considerable best here, gets "Broadway Boogie Woogie," the Kleban song that most anticipated his work on "A Chorus Line." The former Second City performer Jessica Joy, a very decent singer, gets the sexy fodder. And Tina Gluschenko is an understated presence as Sophie, the smart girl Kleban most loved in his crazy world, but when she opens her mouth there's a kind of moral intensity that fits this character wonderfully.
But this is Larkin's show. As this deeply empathetic performance unfolds, you feel both his desire for success and the crippling insecurity that made him undermine anything that was finally going well. In the end, of course, you come to see, as did his bereaved friends, that his talent resided in that very paradox, as is so often the case with the great, misunderstood ones.
When: Through Oct. 7
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $39 at theaterwit.org or 773-975-8150Copyright © 2015, RedEye