Los Angeles Theater Review: MASTER CLASS (International City Theatre in Long Beach)

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by Barnaby Hughes on March 31, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

SCHOOLED BY CALLAS

If you’ve ever been to a master class, then Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play Master Class (1995) will seem very familiar. If you haven’t, then you’re in for a real eye-opener. A master class, as its name suggests, is a class given by an expert (or master) to students in a particular discipline, typically music, but also art and drama. In a music master class, one or more students might perform a prepared piece that will then be subjected to criticism.

Barnaby Hughes' Stage and Cinema review of ICT's “Master Class” in Long Beach.

McNally’s play isn’t just about a master class, it is a master class. The master addresses the audience directly as if they were her students. Students accompanied by a live piano player come on and off stage to sing their chosen pieces. While such a scenario might be interesting in itself, it becomes riveting when the master class in question is taught by opera diva Maria Callas.

Barnaby Hughes' Stage and Cinema review of ICT's “Master Class” in Long Beach.

Master Class is based on true events. Maria Callas really taught a series of master classes at Juilliard in the early 1970s, just before her untimely death in 1977. It was also not long after Aristotle Onassis had left her for Jackie Kennedy in 1968. McNally’s play imagines Callas getting lost in the music as her students sing; she recalls earlier events from her life such as her La Scala debut and the end of her relationship with Onassis. While these scenes help paint a fuller picture of Callas for the audience, they were actually my least favorite part of the play: Emotionalism and exaggeration aside, they detract from the otherwise perfect realism of the master class format.

Barnaby Hughes' Stage and Cinema review of ICT's “Master Class” in Long Beach.

Under director Todd Nielsen, International City Theatre in Long Beach presents a truly delightful and enjoyable production of Master Class. As Maria Callas, the captivating Gigi Bermingham gives an unforgettable performance, imbuing Callas with such humanity that you really feel as though you know the woman. As a diva, she orders the stagehand around, wanting a footstool one minute and a cushion the next. As a teacher, she chides one of her students for not bringing a pencil. In fact, she is so good at making you feel like you’re in a class that members of the audience actually responded to her questions. And her Greek accent and Italian diction were impeccable.

Barnaby Hughes' Stage and Cinema review of ICT's “Master Class” in Long Beach.

Bermingham is clearly the star of the production, which at times feels like a one-woman show, but she is joined by an excellent supporting cast. James Lent, as the accompanist Emmanuel Weinstock, plays so beautifully that I thought it was a recording at first (Lent has a doctorate in music from Yale and is presently on the staff at UCLA). Stagehand Jeremy Mascia adds a bit of humor with his raised eyebrows and general sense of exasperation.

Barnaby Hughes' Stage and Cinema review of ICT's “Master Class” in Long Beach.

The three student singers, Jennifer Shelton as Sharon Graham, Tyler Milliron as Anthony Candolino and Danielle Skalsky as Sophie de Palma, all have beautiful voices, though not terribly powerful ones. Skalsky, who comes on first, plays her part as a bit awkward and out of place (her performing experience has primarily been in musicals, and it shows). Milliron’s character is of a much different type – one almost as big as Callas’ herself; when Callas gets a bit too critical of Anthony, Milliron responds with a ferocity that nearly cows Callas. Shelton has the most complex student role, one that calls for an extraordinary range of emotion, and (pun intended) she hits all the right notes. Though none of the arias are performed in their entirety, they are all written by Italian composers whose music Callas is associated with: Puccini, Verdi and Bellini.

Barnaby Hughes' Stage and Cinema review of ICT's “Master Class” in Long Beach.One of the most surprising and enjoyable things about Master Class is how funny it is. Although the subject matter – music – is taken very seriously, and Callas herself is presented as a singularly passionate person, there is a playfulness to it that manages to prevent the tone from becoming too heavy. While you don’t have to be a fan of Maria Callas or of opera to like Master Class, if you do happen to be a fan, then you will particularly enjoy this masterful production.

photos by Suzanne Mapes

Master Class
International City Theatre
located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center
scheduled to end on April 14, 2013
for tickets, call 562-436-4610 or visit http://www.InternationalCityTheatre.org

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