San Diego Theater Review: MASTER CLASS (ion theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on September 26, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

SCHOOLED BY CALLAS

If you’ve ever been to a master class, then Terrence McNally’s 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.

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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.

SONY DSCMaster Class is based on true events. 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.

Under director Kim Strassburger, ion theatre presents a truly enjoyable production. As Callas, the captivating Sandy Campbell (amazing in ion’s Passion) 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 some members of the audience actually responded to her questions. And her Italian diction was impeccable.

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The only quibble are the flashback scenes in this production; they help paint a fuller picture of Callas for the audience, but even with Campbell’s lovely emotionalism and exaggeration, Strassburger simply had her lead stand and deliver (what I call “Park and Bark” in opera)—and these moments call for some more imagination from production designer Claudio Raygoza.

SONY DSCCampbell is clearly the star of the production, which is basically a one-woman show, but she receives some terrific support from the cast. Daniel James Greenbush, as the accompanist Emmanuel Weinstock, plays so beautifully that I thought it was a recording at first—and his line readings seem completely extemporaneous. The production’s actual Stage Manager Colleen E. Keith plays the stagehand with delicious deadpan élan, wisely going for blasé over exasperation.

The three student singers—Laura Bueno as Sophie, Priti Gandhi as Sharon, and Alex Cammarata as Anthony—all have beautiful voices, although Gandhi is strikingly powerful vocally; she’ll blow you away. Bueno, who comes on first, rightfully plays her part as a bit awkward and out of place. Cammarata’s character is of a much different type—one almost as cocky as Callas; when Callas gets a bit too critical of Anthony, he responds with a ferocity that nearly cows Callas; Cammarata nails the vocals but is unfortunately miscast physically and emotionally. Gandhi 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.

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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. You don’t have to be a fan of either Callas or opera to like Master Class.

photos courtesy of ion theatre

Master Class
ion Theatre Company
an Off-the-Radar production
BLKBOX, 3704 Sixth Ave.
Thurs & Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8
ends on October 17, 2015
for tickets, call 619.600.5020 or www.iontheatre.com

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