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Economy Class Act

A Class Act is an amiable, small-scale show-business musical, a bit limited in its insider appeal. The overlong I Will Bear Witness is not easy to bear.

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Edward Kleban, who died of cancer at 48, wanted to be a Broadway composer-lyricist but seemed doomed to be remembered only for his lyrics for A Chorus Line. Still, he kept writing and composing musicals that, for various reasons, never materialized. Now, after six years' toil, Linda Kline, Ed's last girlfriend, and the actor and director Lonny Price have fashioned a musical about Kleban's life from Kleban's various songs. After several title changes, it saw the light on the Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II as A Class Act. In intimate surroundings, it worked nicely.

It is a modest affair: a cast of eight, two of them doubling in several parts; the most rudimentary scenery by James Noone -- sliding and revolving panels with a projection or two; minimal dancing choreographed by Marguerite Derricks for nonprofessional dancers. Truth to tell, it does rather rattle around on the stage of the Ambassador, a bit like a kid strutting about in a parent's clothes and shoes. We see Ed as a student in Lehman Engel's BMI musical-comedy workshop, horsing around and sparring with his teacher and fellow students, and sleeping with a couple of the girls in addition to having a lifelong platonic on-and-off love affair with Sophie, a fictional character.

He heads into the showbiz world, gets hired and fired from the revival of the musical Irene, works as a record producer, has health problems aggravated by hypochondria and obsessiveness, and stormily collaborates with Marvin Hamlisch and Michael Bennett on A Chorus Line.

So came partial success, stagnation, and premature death. Is this the stuff of a Broadway musical, with wide enough appeal to justify the transfer? Kleban's lyrics are likable but not outstanding; Kleban's music is pleasant but never rousing. Many of the jokes and references are insider stuff.

Lonny Price has again directed and stars as a true-to-life Kleban: cozily homely, edgy-voiced, cockily combative but with a softly childlike center. As Sophie, Randy Graff again delights: Without having anything dazzling about her, she manages to exude warmth and grace and does everything unerringly right. Nancy Anderson, also from the original cast, is the cuddliest sexpot, not, however, without a sting or two. David Hibbard, another holdover, handles his roles adequately, as does Jeff Blumenkrantz, a replacement. The appealing Donna Bullock, as the co-author's alter ego, is not quite as assured as was Carolee Carmello; Patrick Quinn is a less funny Lehman Engel than Jonathan Freeman; and Sara Ramirez, for all her strong singing, makes the snotty Felicia too unprepossessing.

Carrie Robbins has further gussied up her mischievous costumes, and Kevin Adams provides a large bank of exposed onstage lights that augur ill but work out splendidly. An amiable little show, this, that turns moving in the end; those who thrill to the peripeties of show business and are unencumbered by high expectations will gently pat it on its head.

Victor Klemperer's sufferings and faithfully jotted-down observations of Jewish life under the Nazis make for spellbinding but lengthy reading. Even boiled down to 155 minutes, they feel overlong for a solo stage performance. George Bartenieff, who with his wife, Karen Malpede, adapted the memoir I Will Bear Witness, is an able actor, but this requires a great one. He and Malpede, who directed, make the mistake of having him act out things to a great extent, whereas a reading comes off best when, with slight but suggestive movement, it remains a reading.

A Class Act
Directed by Lonny Price at the Ambassador Theatre.
I Will Bear Witness
Directed by Karen Malpede at the Classic Stage Company.


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