Saturday July 21, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- When composer-lyricist Edward Kleban died of lung cancer in 1987, he left behind a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for his lyrics to Marvin Hamlisch’s music for "A Chorus Line" and a huge bundle of songs for Broadway musicals that never came to be.

Those songs are the foundation for "A Class Act," itself a Tony Award-winning musical that showcases Kleban’s work and his life, that is being presented at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre by BTG’s newly reminted Unicorn Company, an engaging company of poised young conservatory actors on the cusp of professional careers.

The framing device for "A Class Act" is a memorial service for Kleban on the stage of the Shubert Theatre in New York, home to his only produced show, "A Chorus Line." Kleban’s ghost stands off to the side, watching, unseen by everyone except Sophie (Anya Whelan-Smith in a smartly crafted, resonant portrayal), a research oncologist who was Kleban’s lover, would-be wife and, with the exception of a two-year separation, longstanding best friend.

Through flashbacks and a rich sampling of Kleban’s unproduced songs, "A Class Act" traces the life arc of a talented, if not exceptionally so, man, played vividly by Ross Baum in a performance that catches the frustrating contradictions of a man and artist who was, in so many ways, the architect of his failed professional ambitions.

Whelan-Smith and Baum anchor this production but they are nourished by an amiable, talented ensemble and the particular skills of Rachael Balcanoff as Lucy, another woman who comes along at just the right time in Kleban’s life, and Eddie Shields as Kleban’s good male friend, Bobby, whom he befriends in Lehman Engel’s (a sincere if too young Joel Simpson) B.M.I. Musical Theater Workshop.

I’m not sure that "A Class Act" makes a strong case for Kleban’s unclaimed genius. With the notable exceptions of "Paris in the Morning," "I Choose You" and "I Won’t Be There" and the lyrics for "A Chorus Line," Kleban’s material is not especially memorable. And Linda Kline and Lonny Price’s book is, at times, embarrassingly cliche-choked and awkward.

Moreover, for a show that claims to be more a celebration of Kleban’s songs than a biopic, "A Class Act" bogs down in Kleban’s life and personality. It’s hard not to. That life and Kleban’s emotional responses to events in his life fuel his art. At the same time, after a while, this long show feels just about every second that’s left of its just-under three hours.

That the production doesn’t collapse under the weight of Kleban’s self-absorption says a good deal about the connections between director Robert Moss and a responsive, resourceful cast, who bring a kind of "Merrily We Roll Along" sense of aspiration and promise to the Unicorn stage.