BWW Review: CVRep's A CLASS ACT is Enjoyable Musical Theatre

BWW Review: CVRep's A CLASS ACT is Enjoyable Musical Theatre
L to R: Ed (Jeffrey Landman), Bobby (Craig Cady), and Charley
(Craig McEldowney) attend Lehman Engel's (Sal Mistretta, not
pictured) musical writing class.

Coachella Valley Repertory (CVRep) became an Equity theatre last year - apparently the only one in the Coachella Valley. In keeping with its new status, it has undertaken something new: a musical with a cast of eight and an orchestra of four. A CLASS ACT, a fictionalized biography of songwriter Ed Kleban's life, results in an entertaining evening of theatre, with a compelling story, a well-written, humorous book, fabulous dancing, and several excellent singing and acting performances.

Mr. Kleban was the lyricist who collaborated with composer Marvin Hamlisch on A CHORUS LINE. However, Ed, as he is called in A CLASS ACT, wanted desperately for one of his own musicals to be produced, or at least to sell his musical compositions along with his lyrics. Ed, who had significant problems with mental illness, couldn't accept the idea that he was viewed primarily as a lyricist. Only after he died of smoking-related cancer in 1987, at the age of 48, was his dream realized - his girlfriend, Linda Kline, together with Lonny Price, wrote the biographical book for A CLASS ACT, and paired it with Mr. Kleban's lyrics and music. The result is a tuneful musical comedy heavy on dance and group singing numbers, but which also contains dramatic moments, including one tearjerker scene.

Director Ron Celona, musical director Scott Storr (who also plays the piano in the orchestra), and choreographer and assistant director Mark Esposito have created a seamless whole - quite a feat considering that this is the first time that this team has worked together at CVRep, and the first time that CVRep has undertaken a project this size.

BWW Review: CVRep's A CLASS ACT is Enjoyable Musical Theatre
Charley, Ed, and Lehman Engel (Sal Mistretta)

Ordinarily musical theatre reviews begin with the performances. However, in this case, I believe that the show could never have gone on at all without Jimmy Cuomo's clever set design, because a long, narrow stage is not conducive to lively dancing. The set is one reason that the production's dance numbers succeed so well - Mr. Cuomo gives the performers more room than the stage initially seems to allow, by removing the semi-permanent set from the middle. In its place, he has added plain backdrops, which can be separated to allow an additional exit from the stage. Mr. Cuomo uses these structures as screens for the projections that he also designed. His stylized second act set of the New York skyline, with gold trim on buildings that are also decorated with sheet music, is extraordinary.

The dance numbers all sparkle under Mark Esposito's brilliant choreography and the considerable talent of every dancer. In addition, all four females are superb singers. Julie Garnye, as Sophie, Ed's high school sweetheart, and Rachael M. Johnson, as the girlfriend who survives him, have lovely traditional voices. Christina Morrell, as Ed's boss at Columbia Records, and Kristin Towers-Rowles, as the vamp who comes between Ed and Sophie, are belters. The combination of the two styles works perfectly. Broadway veteran Sal Mistretta, who plays Ed's mentor, also has a fine voice. These five cast members put forth top-notch comedic and dramatic characterizations.

BWW Review: CVRep's A CLASS ACT is Enjoyable Musical Theatre
Ed and former girlfriend and current best friend Sophie (Julie Garnye)

The rest of the cast turned in mixed performances on the day I attended the show. Jeffrey Landman plays Ed Kleban as more of a loveable, meshuggeh curmudgeon than as a deeply troubled soul who cruelly rejects his best friend. This decision, in my view, is the right one for a show that is primarily a musical comedy, although, at times, his portrayal seemed too laid-back for the events taking place. Also, even though Mr. Landman's voice is pleasant, it does not seem strong, and his decision to belt many of his numbers resulted in some wobbly moments. The other two cast members, Craig Cady, who plays classmate Bobby and choreographer Michael Bennett, and Craig McEldowney, who plays classmate Charley and composer Marvin Hamlisch, turn in fine acting performances as the two celebrities, but their other characters seem flat. Also, their singing voices, in my opinion, do not measure up to their considerable dancing talent.

This musical has many entertaining numbers. "Charm Song," "Paris Through the Window," "Gaugin's Shoes," "The Next Best Thing to Love," "Broadway Boogie Woogie," and the numbers from A CHORUS LINE keep the show hopping, literally and figuratively. Seeing these numbers performed so successfully would alone be worth the price of admission. Director Celona keeps the action moving; at no time did I find myself bored or impatient with the pace.

BWW Review: CVRep's A CLASS ACT is Enjoyable Musical Theatre
L to R, front row: Felicia (Christina Morrell), Mona (Kristin Towers-Rowles), and Charley.
L to R, back row: Lucy (Rachael M. Johnson), Bobby, and Ed

I recommend A CLASS ACT because it provides an enjoyable few hours of theatre through a witty book and lyrics and through well-done old-fashioned song and dance numbers. This show isn't Shakespeare or grand opera, but it's a lot of fun.

The rest of the crew consists of Louise Ross (stage manager), Aalsa Lee (Costume designer), Eddie Cancel (technical director and lighting designer), Randy Hansen (sound designer); Doug Morris (design associate and props), Karen Goodwin (sound technician), Selene Rodriguez and Melody Solomon (hair and makeup), Jamie Elman and Rosemary Jameson (wardrobe assistants).

A CLASS ACT will run through Saturday, February 14, 2016, with performances Wednesday through Saturday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Evening shows start at 7:30pm. Matinees start at 2:00pm.

CVRep is located in The Atrium, at 69-930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48 each. See the web site, www.CVRep.org, for more information, or call the box office at 760-296-2966.

All four CVRep productions for 2015-16 contain the underlying theme of Identity: Lost and Found. The last two productions are:

I AM MY OWN WIFE, by Doug Wright (March 9 - March 27, 2016). Before there was Hedwig, there was Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, with whom the playwright conducted interviews over several years. The play tells the fascinating tale of the real-life German transgendered woman who managed to survive both the Nazi onslaught and the repressive East German Communist regime, but often resorted to nefarious means to do so.

4000 MILES, by Amy Herzog (April 20 - May 8, 2016). After suffering a major loss on a cross-country bike trip, 21-year-old Leo moves in with his feisty 91-year-old grandmother. Over the course of a month, these unlikely roommates infuriate, bewilder, and ultimately touch each other's souls.

Tickets are $43 per person for previews (the first Wednesday and Thursday nights of each run), $58 for the first Friday night of each run (when there is a reception after the show), and $48 for other performances. See the web site, www.CVRep.org, for more information, or call the box office at 760-296-2966. For group sales, please contact Shari Lipman, box office manager at 760-296-2966, extension 101. Box office hours are Mon-Fri 10:30-2:30, and two hours prior to each performance.

Photo Credit: Sal Mistretta

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