Los Angeles Theater Review: MASTER CLASS (Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank)

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by Tony Frankel on October 13, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


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

McNally’s play isn’t just about a master class, it is a master class, so don’t expect a shattering climax here; it may not be dramatically sound, but that’s what we get, and it’s entertaining as hell. 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.

This 1995 two-act play 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. Dimitri Toscas, Artistic Director of the newly named Garry Marshall Theatre (previously the Falcon), has crafted a truly enjoyable production on Francois Pierre Couture’s gorgeous slatted wood set.

As Callas, the captivating Carolyn Hennesy gives an unforgettable performance, imbuing the affected, pompous 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 one member of the audience actually responded to her questions—and was rightfully rebuked. And Hennesy’s Italian diction was impeccable. The flashback scenes paint a fuller picture of Callas for the audience, aided by lovely emotionalism and exaggeration from this theatrical actress.

Hennesy is clearly the star of the production, which is basically a one-woman show, but she receives some terrific support from the cast. Roy Abramsohn, as the accompanist Manny, plays so beautifully that I thought it was a recording at first—and his line readings seem completely extemporaneous. Jeff Campanella plays the stagehand with detached deadpan, giving everyone a “Why do you put up with this bitch?” look.

The three student singers—Maegan McConnell as Sophie, Aubrey Trujillo-Scarr as Sharon, and Landon Shaw III as Anthony—all offer strikingly powerful vocals; they’ll blow you away. McConnell, who comes on first, rightfully plays her part as a bit awkward and out of place. Shaw’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 her, and the ridiculously handsome Shaw nails the vocals. Soprano Trujillo-Scarr has the most complex student role, one that calls for an extraordinary range of emotion, and 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.

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—and with Ms. Hennesy in the lead, you’ll love it.

photos by Chelsea Sutton

Master Class
Garry Marshall Theatre
4252 W. Riverside Dr. in Burbank
ends on October 22, 2017
for tickets, call 818.955.8101 or visit Garry Marshall Theatre

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

CC October 23, 2017 at 9:33 am

Had the chance to watch the final performance. Excellent. Loved it from start to finish!


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