Charm song

Kevin Adams evokes a past Broadway era in A Class Act

Edward Kleban was probably the most successful failure in Broadway history. Such are the ways of show business: Kleban's lifelong dream was to write Broadway scores; while his gifts were widely acknowledged, his shows never got on. Finally, after years of frustration, he reluctantly agreed to write only lyrics for an unpromising project staged by Michael Bennett, titled A Chorus Line. You know the rest: A Chorus Line became the hit that defined Broadway for a generation of theatergoers. That's when Kleban's troubles really began; paralyzed by his success, bitter that his music had been overlooked, driven by titanic neuroses, he sabotaged every subsequent project to which he became attached. When he died, much too young, in 1988, he left behind a legacy of hundreds of unheard songs.

Obviously, this is not the stuff of your typical tears-and-laughter backstage musical. But from Kleban's bittersweet life his longtime companion Linda Kline and actor-director Lonny Price have fashioned A Class Act. Taking the format of an unproduced, autobiographical Kleban show, Light on My Feet, it tells the tale of a Broadway baby who hit the jackpot only once, a fabulously self-defeating character whose life was arguably ruined by success. Even more improbably, A Class Act is moving and funny, a celebration of music, friendship, and musical theatre.

When the show opened Off Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club last fall, it was dismissed as a sweet-but-minor offering, designed mostly for the obsessive show fans who got the libretto's jokes about Debbie Reynolds in Irene and Katharine Hepburn in Coco, and who responded to the script's deft caricatures of Marvin Hamlisch and Michael Bennett. Given a second look, however, A Class Act hits a universal chord: Just as A Chorus Line celebrates the anonymous performers who do it for love rather than fame, so A Class Act stubbornly insists that creative work, successful or not, is the key to a happy life.

The show has four things going for it. First, it vividly evokes a lost Broadway era of daring experimentation, when writers like Stephen Sondheim and directors like Harold Prince and Michael Bennett pushed the boundaries of musical theatre in productions like Follies, A Chorus Line, and Dreamgirls. Second, it has an extremely likable cast, led by Price, who gives a monumental, marathon performance as the driven, destructive, yet lovable Kleban (amazingly, Price also directed). Then there is the score, pulled from Kleban's unproduced shows; they're edgy, funny, touching, melodic, and provide a thorough vindication of his talent.

Fourth, but not least, is the design; James Noone's black-box setting can open up to reveal gorgeous color washes or glittering mirrors. LD Kevin Adams' work is as restless as Kleban himself, filling the space with saturated color, heavy sidelight, colorful backdrops, and lots of kicky patterns. It's a brazenly theatrical approach that purposely evokes the lighting of such Bennett-era giants as Tharon Musser. (Interestingly, the only automated units in the LD's plot are nine City Theatrical AutoYokes, which are used almost exclusively as theatrical specials. Musser, who never met an automated unit that she liked, would be very pleased.)

"I went to see a lot of Broadway musicals running right now," says Adams, recalling his prep work on A Class Act. "I wanted this show to look more like the human-sized musicals of the 1960s. Lonny and I talked more about Promises, Promises than Aida--which, by the way, is impeccably lit. But this show is about making musicals in the 60s and 70s." He researched Michael Bennett's career, reading various histories of A Chorus Line and viewing a tape of the musical at Lincoln Center's Theatre on Film and Tape Collection. He laughs, adding, "I even listened to the cast album of Bajour," referring to an also-ran 1964 Chita Rivera musical treasured by show fans. (Bennett was in the chorus.)

A Class Act begins at Kleban's memorial service at the Shubert Theatre. The preset look is the black-box set, with light ladders visible at stage left and right and the proscenium arch also ringed with lighting units. "Jim [Noone] spec'd the ladders," says Adams, who notes that he treats them like any other scenic element. The exposed theatricality is instantly alluring and, the LD adds, pays tribute to the dazzling towers of light used by Tharon Musser in Dreamgirls. For the opening scene, Adams employs an "empty-stage worklight look," using Lee 161 (Slate Blue) to illuminate the light towers. "Lonny wanted to put scrollers on those units, but Jim and I thought we should keep the silhouette of them simple looking," says Adams. "I wanted the onstage units to be from the pre-scroller world."

The show opens with an amusing effect: A light is focused on an urn, containing Kleban's ashes, placed downstage left. At the top of the first number, "Light on My Feet," the spot moves from the urn to the upper stage right box, where Kleban sits, a guest at his own funeral. He rides an elevator down to the stage, humorously awaiting a bouquet of compliments from his bereaved friends; instead, they exhaustively detail his most irritating foibles. The number turns darker as they probe his career failures; the music becomes more driving, and, to the repeated phrase, "After Chorus Line / Something happened / 'Cause after Chorus Line / Nothing happened," side units perform a relentless chase. "Light On My Feet" begins as a charm song, then turns into a nightmare, and the lighting smooths the transition.

And so it goes; the show probes Kleban's light and dark sides, with Adams contrasting the no-color scenes at the memorial service with vividly colored flashbacks. The first is set in a mental institution where Kleban spent part of his college years. The back wall of the black box flies out to reveal a cyc which Adams fills with Rosco 11 (Light Straw). Later, a number titled "Fridays at Four" takes us to the famed BMI/Lehman Engel workshop where Kleban first earned professional attention; in this scene, the cyc is covered in R22 (Deep Amber). Still later, there's "Gauguin's Shoes," a fantasy sequence in which Kleban compares his artistic problems with those of the famous painter. Here Adams blends "a mixture of colors--greens, blues, and oranges--from top to bottom, to look like a Gauguin painting."

Projections, all of which were designed by Noone, are also used in several key sequences, many of them from custom glass gobos. When Kleban performs his first number, "Paris Through the Window," at the BMI workshop, a lovely watercolor scene of Montmartre is seen on a backdrop. Later, when he toils unhappily as a producer at Columbia Records, several 1960's album covers complete the depiction of a recording studio. A sequence detailing Kleban's post-Chorus Line problems features a series of theatre marquees bearing titles for unproduced or unfinished Kleban shows (many of the custom projections were created by Apollo Design Technology).

Other effects are equally dramatic: A sequence recalling the success of A Chorus Line ends with the climax of that show's final number, "One," with several actors circling on a turntable in front of a mirrored backdrop, as the overhead units perform a circular chase sequence. It's a stunning miniature recreation of the starkly theatrical look devised for that show by Musser and Robin Wagner.

To accomplish all this, Adams says he has "a really nice dance plot of shins, head-highs, and templates, all with scrollers, hidden up in the flies and, from the side, tucked behind the masking." Behind the exposed light ladders, Adams has hidden four 5K fresnels with scrollers that light the back of the ladders, as well as the stage, in a wide range of saturated colors. One key scene at the end of the show is starkly illuminated with only the 5K fresnels and no-color, which is a look that Adams says "contrasts sharply with the lushly layered saturated scenes that have preceded it." About 100 units have color scrollers.

He adds, "Of the show's 500 units, 120 of them have the same dot template in them. I love dot templates," and indeed they provide the designer with a very 60s-era graphic. He also uses dot templates to light the house boxes, providing a telling reminder that we are in a Broadway theatre watching a Broadway show. His dot template of choice is R7808, and it's one he favors so much that he laughs, "I wish I had designed it."

Because the scenery is so spare, the LD adds, "It had to be a two-hour light show. At times, we were pulling out our hair, trying to get more from the plot." Equipment includes approximately 500 ETC Source Fours, the City Theatrical Auto Yokes, Wybron Coloram II scrollers, four Arri 5k units with scrollers, one Robert Juliat 2.5k HMI unit, two Lycian spotlights, and a Reel EFX DF-50 hazer, along with a typical lineup of MR-16, R40, and T3 striplights. (Lighting equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase.) Other key personnel include assistant lighting designer Ben Stanton, production electrician Richard Mortell, head electrician Gregory Husinko, and Brad Nelson and James Aitken, who served as assistants to Adams.

Adams, who can be critical about his own work, says that, in his opinion, "because the lighting package is not so muscular, a couple of the larger dance numbers are a bit undercued." Still, A Class Act proves how much a skillful LD can do with a basically conventional package of equipment. Overall, he says, the goal was "to keep it really simple and human-size. Clearly, we can't compete with the spectacle of Aida, but we can give you a story that's simply told and full of heart."