TOCKBRIDGE — By most accounts, Edward Kleban, the lyricist for “A Chorus Line,’’ was a vivid and memorable figure. A singular sensation, you might say.
But there’s scant evidence of that in “A Class Act,’’ a sporadically engaging but scattershot musical biography that tries unsuccessfully to illuminate Kleban’s short and bumpy life.
In a production by Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Company that is directed by Robert Moss, the respected founder of Playwrights Horizons, “A Class Act’’ feels simultaneously padded out — it’s longer than a work of this modest scope should be — and insubstantial. The cast members are game and energetic, but they are not generally blessed with strong voices, and few performances leave much of an impression.
(To be fair, it should be noted that the Unicorn Company consists of young, non-Equity actors. BTG does one show per summer with the company, aiming to showcase and develop young performers.)
Kleban died of cancer at 48 in 1987, a dozen years after “A Chorus Line’’ became a Broadway phenomenon. Though he continued to write songs after his monumental success, getting his work produced was another matter. The man whose lyrics indelibly expressed the yearning to make it in show business (“God I hope I get it’’) experienced firsthand how hard it is to sustain a career in musical theater, even once you’re well established.
The underlying argument of “A Class Act,’’ which opened on Broadway in 2001, is that Kleban’s story is less one of unfulfilled potential than of unrecognized greatness. Librettists Linda Kline (Kleban’s longtime companion) and Lonny Price seem to be tugging on our sleeves, trying to persuade us of the composer’s stature, but neither their book nor his own songs in “A Class Act’’ makes a persuasive case.
As portrayed by Ross Baum in an argyle sweater and large glasses, Kleban comes across as not much more than a nerdy, high-strung, and thin-skinned songwriter with some quirky habits: He totes a stuffed sheep around with him, he insists on regular daytime naps, he’d rather climb a dozen flights of stairs than take an elevator. “I’m not like other people. . . . I’m a little peculiar,’’ he admits, or maybe boasts.
He’s got talent, but we just don’t see the spark of genius in a man whom one character describes as the greatest lyricist since Stephen Sondheim (a claim that has the ring of overstatement even to an admirer of “A Chorus Line’’). In this production at least, he does not suggest hidden depths of tantalizing mystery or a riddle to be solved, and he is not charismatic or compelling. So it’s never clear why Baum’s whiny, unpredictable Kleban is able to maintain the affection and admiration of his friends.
“A Class Act’’ opens at a memorial service for Kleban in 1988 at the Shubert Theatre before moving back in time to the late 1950s, where the character has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. By the mid-1960s, he is at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, with his stubborn individuality in full flower as he resists the notion that composers are obligated to write “charm songs.’’ It’s clear that Kleban prefers to compose songs that are rooted in narrative, character, and an outsider perspective (all strengths of his “Chorus Line’’ lyrics). Baum’s Kleban signals his originality by performing a wistful composition, “Paris Through the Window.’’
By 1973, a narcissistic director-choreographer named Michael Bennett (Eddie Shields) is asking him to write the lyrics for a new show about Broadway dancers. Kleban wants to write the music, too, but Bennett has another composer in mind: Marvin Hamlisch, played by Brian Scannell as hyperactive and a bit of a buffoon.
Most of the secondary characters in “A Class Act’’ remain indistinct. The protagonist’s girlfriend, Lucy, played by Rachael Balcanoff, never fully comes into focus. Maire Eife is amusing as a sexpot who briefly captivates Kleban, especially in her slinky performance of “Mona.’’
The most fully developed supporting character, though, is Sophie, a former lover and confidante of the protagonist who is played with sensitivity by Anya Whelan-Smith. Sophie is the one who tells Kleban that his lyrics might be better than his music — something a spectator at “A Class Act’’ could be inclined to agree with — but she remains loyal to him even after he decides to stop speaking to her. Whelan-Smith spells out the nature of their relationship in a tender rendition of Kleban’s “The Next Best Thing to Love.’’ It’s a high point in a show that just doesn’t have enough of them.