It's no coincidence that the Berkshire Theatre Group (formerly Berkshire Theatre Festival) is following A Chorus Line, its season opener, with A Class Act, a pastiche musical celebrating the life and songs of Edward Kleban. Kleban wrote the lyrics for the now-classic musical A Chorus Line, which brought him awards and riches but never quite led to the brilliant career he dreamed of—a career the creators of this affectionate but clear-eyed musical biography obviously think he deserved.
Linda Kline and Lonny Price have fashioned a partly fictionalized overview of Kleban's professional and personal history, and inserted, sometimes felicitously, sometimes awkwardly, a score drawn from his unproduced catalogue of songs. In a series of flashbacks sparked by the recollections of friends and colleagues at a memorial tribute after Kleban's death at age 48, we discover a talented but impossible little nerd, bursting with ambition and neuroses, with a gift for songmaking and a penchant for alienating and infuriating those same friends and colleagues.
The play underlines two ironic truths about life in the arts, one explicitly, the other inadvertently. On one hand, we see that Kleban's quirky, often abrasive personality repeatedly undermined his ambitions and squandered golden opportunities. But for me, the other key to Kleban's ultimately frustrated career was his persistent desire to be not "merely" a lyricist but composer of his own songs as well.
Following the success of Chorus Line, which he wrote with composer Marvin Hamlisch, Kleban apparently rejected further collaborative projects. At one point in the script, the woman he holds most dear precipitates a terminal rift when she says, in a moment of anger, "Maybe your music is not as good as your lyrics." That judgment is quickly repudiated by another friend, but to my ears, it sounded like a painful home truth.
Kleban's lyrics are truly wonderful—smart, supple works of craft and art—but compared to Hamlisch's elegant settings for Chorus Line, most of the tunes in A Class Act are agile but generic. Which must have more than a bit to do with why Kleban never got another bite at the big Broadway apple.
It's also no coincidence that the two BTG productions echo the contrast between Kleban's one big success and the works that would be appreciated by only a small circle of friends and admirers. A Chorus Line has received a full-scale production at Pittsfield's sumptuous Colonial Theatre, with a large cast of established pros and a full pit band, while A Class Act is performed by eight young emerging artists accompanied by a solo piano in the intimate Unicorn Theatre on BTG's Stockbridge campus.
Eric Hill and choreographer Gerry McIntyre's production of A Chorus Line is every bit as polished and engaging as other professional productions I've seen. In A Class Act, the singing is sometimes spotty and the dancing perfunctory, but the performances, led by Ross Baum's winningly nerdy performance as Kleban, epitomize the infectious exuberance and passion that makes us enter and cling to this most precarious and rewarding of occupations: what we do for love.
A Chorus Line plays through July 21 at the Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield; A Class Act runs through August 4 at the Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge, berkshiretheatregroup.org.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.