Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Review: Revivals of an Enjoyable “Class Act” and a Fine, if Over-Thought, “Company”

Reviews: A Class Act, Company

A Class Act (c) Russ Rowland

A Class Act 
At J2 Spotlight (Theater Row) 

It occurred to me around the middle of Act One as to why the story of “A Class Act” felt so familiar to me. Yes, I saw both the original 2000 Manhattan Theatre Club production and the Broadway transfer in 2001, but I haven’t really thought about the show since. And then it hit me, “A Class Act” is to songwriter Edward Kleban what “tick, tick…Boom!” is to Jonathan Larsen. The one difference is that Kleban actually enjoyed the success of his biggest musical, “A Chorus Line,” while Larsen never basked in the triumph that was “Rent.” Both “A Class Act” and “tick, tick…Boom!” used existing songs from each composer to create a sort of composite musical biography. I was interested to see The J2 Spotlight’s production of “A Class Act” to see if it held up after 20 years, and the answer is a resounding “Yes!” This production, creatively directed by J2’s Artistic Director Robert W. Schneider, is a powerful reminder of how wonderful the musical is. First of all, it rightly refocuses the show on Kleban, himself as opposed to framing the show as the guy who wrote the lyrics to “A Chorus Line.” 

The musical starts at a memorial service for Kleban with all his friends at the Shubert Theatre when Kleban himself shows up as a ghost and to set his life story straight. Kleban is played by an excellent Andy Tighe, who when he first shows up, I thought was too tall and not nebbish enough. But Tighe convincingly created a new version of Ed that feels more humanizing and relatable (as well as frustrating and manic). The rest of the cast provides ample support with Eric Michael Gillett (as mentor Lehman) and Alaina Mills (as his soulmate Sophie) the standouts. Mills gets to sing the most famous song from the show, “The Next Best Thing to Love,” which may be the next best thing to Randy Graff, who stole the original production with that song. The other women in the cast have fun moments (there’s a “Bye, Felicia” line that should either be cut or played up, because the audience will laugh no matter what), but the men have the advantage of also playing two real life characters, Michael Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch in the “A Chorus Line” section that dominates Act Two. J2 Spotlight is a relatively new theater company that seems to have the same mandate as Encores! at City Center, which is to spotlight shows that have sort of been forgotten. J2, however, is not reimagining or updating these shows, at least not based on “A Class Act,” but giving us a reasonable facsimile of the shows as they were. Both approaches have their pros and cons, but, given how uneven last week’s “The Tap Dance Kid” was at Encores! and how successful “A Class Act” is in this modest but winning production, I would say Round One is won by J2. Next up for J2 is “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine” and then “The Baker’s Wife.” Each production has eight performances during its two-weekend run. If you have fond memories of the original or only know the show from its Cast Recording, you should not miss J2’s first-class “A Class Act” revival. 

Company (c) Matthew Murphy, Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Theater: Company 
On Broadway (Jacobs Theatre) 

I’ve been waiting to see “Company” since it started previews in February 2020. When it finally opened in December 2021, we now had the added burden of Stephen Sondheim’s recent passing mixed with the excitement of opening a huge musical on Broadway during a surging pandemic. Now, a month after opening, I was able to see this reimagined production with the lead of Bobby transformed to Bobbie, a single woman who is turning 35 and is being overwhelmed by a company of her married friends and the guys she’s dating who all want to know what she’s has planned for her next 35. And I hate to say it, but I was mildly disappointed by Marianne Elliot’s production. As played by the always game but ultimately miscast Katrina Lenk, Bobbie is having a breakdown, which is not a novel concept for the character, but she is also more of an alcoholic that Elliot seems to hammer to the point that it seems all her friends aren’t throwing her a surprise birthday party but staging an intervention. The ensemble is a mix of well-seasoned Broadway character actors as well newer faces, and the results are mixed. Of course, Patti LuPone kills “The Ladies Who Lunch” (but could she not get out of her chair once during the song?) and it’s not Amy but Jamie (Matt Doyle) who is now a nervous gay groom not “Getting Married Today,” and Doyle’s manic take is a highpoint of the show (although nobody will ever match Madeline Kahn’s master class of stillness in a 1992 concert performance). But my favorite song, “Another Hundred People,” is a mess, being way too busy and sung in a hurried blur by Bobby Conte. 

As for the married couples, I know they should be overbearing by the end of the almost three-hour running time, but I felt claustrophobic from the first number (the set by Bunny Christie of interlocking Lego-like cubes doesn’t help). And yet, this being one of Sondheim’s most charming scores, you can’t help but have a good time (like the guy next to me who sang at least the first line of half the songs or the gentleman behind me releasing aerosols by yelling Brava after every number). Most of the time, I was able to just let the songs and the humorous book by George Furth envelope me in their wit and charm, but then something like Bobbie proposing to a gay man happens and I was shaken out of my reverie with a “What?” This revival “could drive a person crazy.”

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