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Porchlight’s homage to lyricist Edward Kleban is first ‘Class’

(L R) Bill LarkDanTrett'A Class Act' Porchlight

(L to R) Bill Larkin and Dana Tretta in "A Class Act" at Porchlight

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When: Through Oct. 7

Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $39

Info: (773) 975-8150;

Updated: October 7, 2012 6:49AM

Marvin Hamlisch and Michael Bennett are household names to anyone even remotely interested in the Broadway musical. But Edward Kleban? Who was HE?

Well, HE, as it happens, was the guy who wrote such unforgettable lines as “Everything was beautiful at the ballet,” and “One singular sensation” and “What I did for love.” HE was the lyricist who spent a good part of his all-too-short life writing lyrics (and music) for what he hoped would be a slew of hugely successful Broadway shows, though finally he had only that one singular sensation known as “A Chorus Line.”

Kleban did leave behind a trunkful of other clever, gemlike, deeply heartfelt songs when he died of cancer in 1987, at 48. And about two dozen of them find their way into “A Class Act,” the funny, poignant, expertly crafted homage and “musical portrait of the artist” crafted by Linda Kline (Kleban’s longtime companion) and actor-director Lonny Price.

This show, which began Off-Broadway in 2000, arrived ON Broadway the following year and is now receiving a knockout of a Chicago debut by Porchlight Music Theatre, can easily be added to the long list of self-reflective musicals that includes “42nd Street,” “Follies,” “tick, tick...BOOM!,” and, of course, “A Chorus Line” itself. But more than any of those it is about process (with Price no doubt picking up a few pointers from Stephen Sondheim, whose shows he has frequently directed). The lyricist’s art — the way a fictional story can so often be laced with the personal — is beautifully rendered here in shorthand form. So is the battle of egos that resolves into collaboration mode in the creation of any musical.

The Porchlight production is the work of many such collaborating talents, but it is Bill Larkin, the actor who plays Kleban, who makes the whole thing explode with life. A relative unknown, Larkin seizes hold of the composer-lyricist’s soul in the most uncanny way, capturing the genius, the mental illness, the self-destructiveness, the perfectionism, the insecurity, the sweetness, the nerdiness and the sadness of this man who was often his own worst enemy, but who had that engine of creativity and that irrepressible ego that can keep an artist at work. Larkin gives an unforgettable performance.

The show unfolds in the form of a memorial service for Kleban, with the songwriter gleefully popping into the story to replay himself. The guy, to use an ideal Yiddish word, was meshugenah. You wouldn’t want to be his girlfriend, and he was never secure enough to make anyone his wife. But he was a personality, and he left his mark on all who knew him.

Stacey Flaster, one of the several high-flying women who both direct and choreograph on Chicago’s musical stages these days, nails things here, and her casting is ideal. Tina Gluschenko plays Sophie, the childhood friend who becomes an oncologist and, for better and for worse, never fails to tell Kleban the truth. Dana Tretta plays the singer who champions his songs and dotes on him ’til the end. Jessica Joy is the adorably sexy little songwriter, Mona, with whom he has a very brief fling early on. And Sharriese Hamilton is the record company executive who fails to boss him around.

Zach Spound plays Marvin Hamlisch in a zany scene that suggests how two talents can simultaneously chafe and inspire each other. John Francisco is spot-on as choreographer Michael Bennett. So is Michael Glenn as Lehman Engel, whose fabled musical theater workshop was Kleban’s home. Beckie Menzie supplies the fine musical direction, as well as the splendid onstage piano accompaniment.

Throughout the show there are excerpts from an intriguing unproduced Kleban musical titled “Gallery.” If it fully exists, Porchlight might just be the perfect place to give it a first hearing. Meanwhile, we have what is truly “A Class Act.”

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