Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Master Class"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Will Stackman

"Master Class"

Reviewed by Will Stackman

"Master Class"

a play by Terrence McNally
directed by Scott Gagnon

Lightin Design by Christopher Beaumont
Stage Manager Lori Manzell

Maria Callas - Louise Cash
Manny Weinstock (Accompanist) - Jason Whiting
Sophie De Palma (Student Soprano #1) - Laura Grande
Tony Candolino (Student Tenor) - Cory Walker
Sharon Graham (Student Soprano #2) - Stephanie Mann
Stagehand - Christopher Kloko

Boston Theatre Bridge’s short-lived production of Terrence McNally’s biographical fragment about Maria Callas, “Master Class”, was a valiant attempt to breathe life into a basically unpleasant, if awardwinning script. This collection of tabloid innuendo and backstage opera gossip disguised as an incipient tragedy dressed up with platitudes about art and life has been regularly reviewed as some sort of revelation, usually by critics who’ve bought into the legend of La Divina. A few have noted that audiences seem to be applauding the mystique of the opera diva, even one who’s become a sidebar in the greater obsession with Jackie O. Quite simply, this theatre piece doesn’t work without a bona fide star portraying the central character, lending her own personae to the almost cartoon-like characterization in the script. The last touring effort through the area featured Lucy Arnez, though perhaps Barbara Meek’s effort down at Trinity in Providence is more to the point.

Louise Cash, Chair of Performance Arts at Emmanuel College, is a solid actress and vocal performer with an understanding of the situation in the play. Despite her best efforts, and the direction of Scott Gagnon, a founding member of the Bridge and an instructor at Emmanuel, “Master Class” didn’t rise beyond its rather mechanical construction and banal content. The script was originally commissioned by Circle Rep in NYC aimed at a particular audience and found unexpected success when moved to Broadway, winning Patti Lupone a Tony when she took over from Zoe Caldwell. Audra MacDonald played the final student soprano with Caldwell, the only extended live performance, which was probably worth the price of admission in itself. She too got a Tony. With star power, this play works, unfortunately. Without it, caveat emptor, unless like most to the first night audience, you know someone in the cast.

The cast of the production at Longy was suited to their roles, but wasn’t able to get much beyond the one dimensional writing. Laura Grande as Sophie De Palma, the hefty soprano in a short dress whose humiliation forms the basis of the first half, was comically clueless. This character is obviously intended to suggest Callas as a young over-weight, ill-favored singer trying to make her way in the turbulence of the ‘30s and ‘40s in Europe. As one of Professor Cash’s voice students, there is an obvious contact between the two, but only a few moments of drama, and a rather tedious demonstration of operatic “acting.”

After the interval, we meet the second student, a tenor, Tony Candolino, played by Cory Walker, last seen in Turtle Lane’s “Sweet Charity.” He managed the humorous optimism of part, even though it was written for a New York Italian, rather than an African-American. What personal moments the script suggests, however, were completely passed over. But he got deserved applause for his fragment from “Tosca”, which was supposed to be more relevant.

The third victim of Callas’ obtrusive coaching is Sharon Graham, who’s attempting the Letter Scene from “Macbetto”. Stephanie Mann, with a recent Master’s degree in Opera from Boston Conservatory, did a satisfactory job with the music, though not at the level that might make us think of Callas when the latter triumphed at La Scala, which is the script’s intention. This rendition triggers the second spotlit monologue in which Callas spills her guts to the audience while the rest of the stage is frozen. By lumping the drama of the play into two such extended memories, which include both sides of remembered conversations, McNally has also stacked the deck against the main performer. These speeches are “arias”, appreciated more for their emotional performance than their content. This may speak to the mind of an opera star, but doesn’t really advance the play. Indeed after the second, which contains wrenching personal material, the play turns conventional. The student stalks off dissatisfied, showing that she may have learned how to make at exit even if her entrances need work . Callas then utters a few platitudes which attempt to tie things up, and goes off to a hair appointment. Life goes on isn’t much of an ending. McNally’s heavy-handed comparisons between Callas’ life story and moments in opera trivializes both,

The result was a rather disappointing evening. Pickman Hall itself was a good setting, but the lighting was too rudimentary. Subtle additional front light plus control over the memory sequence would have given the show more focus. Using inadequate house speakers for the Callas recording included in the piece meant that various portions of the dialogue were hard to hear since there was no monitoring, possibly due to insufficient rehearsal in the space. Similarly, Jason Whiting, who did yeoman service as Manny, the accompanist, obviously used to putting up with a lot, needed some way to better adjust the volume of his playing on the hall’s concert grand to the vocal requirements of the show. Note to future producers of the piece - and it will be done- hire a sound engineer. It would also make sense to put notes in the program concerning the operas central to the script. Even those who know of them probably haven’t seen them recently enough.

"Master Class" (21 - 23 June)
Longy School of Music, CAMBRIDGE MA

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