MASTER CLASSBy Terrence McNally
Greater Lewisville Community Theatre
Directed by – M. Shane Hurst
Producer – George Redford
Costume Designer – Hope Cox
Set Designer – George Redford
Lighting Designer – John Damian, Sr.
Sound Designer – M. Shane Hurst
Projection Designer – Chris Robinson
Technical Assistant – John Damian, Sr.
Light and Sound Board Operator – Chris Buras
Set Construction – John Damian Sr., M. Shane Hurst, George Redford, Chris Robinson
Maria Callas – Sherri Small
Accompanist (Emmanuel Weinstock) – Kevin Sutton
First Soprano (Sophie De Palma) – Camille Skye
Second Soprano (Sharon Graham) – Emily Saénz
Tenor (Anthony Candolino) – Jonathan Speegle
“Oh! Se una volta sola…Ah! Non credea mirarti” from Vincenzo Bellini’s La Sonnambula
“Dammi I colori…Recondita armonia” from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
“Vieni! t’affretta” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
Reviewed Performance: 2/14/2016
Reviewed by Nicole Mulupi, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Greater Louisville Community Theatre attempts the impossible in their production of Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play, Master Class. This fictional work is set in Juilliard’s theatre where Maria Callas did, actually, teach master classes in 1971 and 1972. The plot is drawn from real events, based on recordings of the master classes at Juilliard, biographical information that can be found with just a bit of research, and a dose of McNally’s own perceptive imagination. The play attempts to conjure up the drama from within the mind of its subject, iconic opera singer Maria Callas. It addresses the tragic later years, after the decline of her voice, the loss of her career and the abandonment of her beloved Aristotle Onassis. Master Class was originally performed by the Philadelphia Theatre Company and then opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre in 1995 with Zoe Caldwell as Maria Callas. In addition to its win for Best Play, Zoe Caldwell won the Tony for Best Actress in a Play and Audra McDonald for Best Featured Actress in a Play, as the student Sharon Graham.
At first glance, it seems M. Shane Hurst took on a very manageable play. There is little in the way of scenery, sets, props, costumes and staging here. Additionally, it’s a small cast, so there’s not a lot of blocking or choreography. However, Mr. Hurst had his work cut out for him in casting, especially for the role of “La Callas”. How in the world can anyone believably portray such a well-known, larger-than-life diva? Yet, in Sherri Small he found a gem.
If you listen to the sessions that Callas taught at Juilliard, you will hear the same tone of voice and expression that Sherri Small gives to the character. It is obvious she did her research and put months of hard work into playing this role. Just memorizing the lines would be a feat worthy of a great actress, but Small acts, moves and sounds like Callas did during her time at Juilliard, and she delivers the lines with, seemingly, little effort, as though they are her own. While McNally’s Callas is much less inspiring than the woman herself, Sherri Small is able to do justice to both her subject and the script, which is an enormous task, as the script leaves out so much of the real-life singer and leaves a lot open to interpretation. Others who have taken on the role have turned the singer into a mere caricature, making her no more than the distorted image that the press continually fed the world while she was alive. Their strategy is good for laughs, but it damages the soul of the character. Sherri Small contributes a degree of authenticity to the role that makes the play not just an entertaining master class, but it leaves you wanting to know more about the amazing artist upon whose life it is based. Fans of Maria Callas will appreciate this interpretation.
Ms. Small is particularly engaging in the brief moments when she becomes Callas the performer, “La Divina”. In her efforts to make the students feel deeply what their characters must be going through, she herself shows them how to act, to feel and become the character they are portraying in the arias they sing. Though she does not sing, she delivers the lines with the same emotional strength, expressions, and gestures that the real Maria Callas would have used. (Though, in reality, Maria Callas sang a lot in the master classes, and often beautifully.) When Small becomes Bellini’s Amina and Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, she evokes the same transformative power that Maria Callas herself exhibited when on stage. During these moments when she was no longer a teacher in a classroom, but a great stage performer – it was startling to see – I felt that I actually was watching the real Maria Callas performing, as though this character really was the washed-out singer who could, yet, still feel the power of the theatre and make it come alive inside her.
In the more introspective scenes, the audience sees Callas as never before. Putting aside the mask of controlled sophistication that she always wore in public, this Maria speaks her mind. As each student performs, she is transported through time, reminiscing about and replaying scenes from the past. During these monologues, the character lets her guard down and speaks her mind, even to the point of vulgarity. She reenacts conversations with her lover, Aristotle Onassis, and with her ex-husband, Meneghini, while famous photos of her younger self are projected on the walls behind her and recordings of her own performances play in the background. The accompanist and the student remain still, as they have no place in Maria’s imagination. It is a powerful actress who can convince you, even for a moment, that she is Maria Callas. But, even with the pictures, or perhaps because of the pictures, Sherri Small is a believable middle-aged Callas.
All other cast and crew are little more than a backdrop for the star of the show. However, each of them are such strong artists that it would be a sin to forget them. They each contributed a degree of credibility to their roles so that, throughout the play, you become less and less the audience to a drama and, gradually, more an audience to an actual master class. They also provide comic relief to balance off the weightier aspects of the play. The dialogues between each of them and Callas were quite funny.
Hope Cox designed costumes that took the audience back 40 years to the days of tube socks and mini-skirts, large-print floral gowns, and blue eye shadow. The costumes were tasteful and complimentary. They were dated, but not distractingly so.
John Damian, Sr., M. Shane Hurst, Chris Robinson, and George Redford worked to create a dull, sparse stage and set that conspicuously contrasted the extravagant opera stages that Callas would have been used to. This backdrop contributed to the sense of how great a fall from glory she had endured. The only things on stage were the things that were essential to the script, such as the piano and bench, a table with a pitcher water, and a chair and stand. The backdrop was a dull blue, and the light cues were very practical. During the flashback sequences, the stage was lit in color, first with rose-colored hues and later, greenish-blues, which gave the stage a dreamy quality that complemented the music and the monologues. Chris Buras, as light and sound board operator, was flawless in implementing his cues.
As Mann, the accompanist, Kevin Sutton was entertaining and plausible. His character did not speak a lot, but he responded to Callas’s humor and criticism with a few clever remarks and sarcastic looks. His casual ease made the setting feel natural and grounded it firmly in reality.
The director, M. Shane Hurst, made a few cameo appearances as the bored Stagehand who did not appreciate being ordered around and condescended to. Knowing he was the director of the show added an extra level of humor when Maria talked to him as though he was of very little importance.
Camille Skye plays the First Soprano, Sophie De Palma. Her character is very youthful, perky and somewhat immature. She idolizes Maria Callas and is hoping that something of the diva will simply rub off on her. Ms. Skye has a lovely voice and sings “Oh! Se una volta sola…Ah! Non credea mirarti” from Vincenzo Bellini’s La Sonnambula. As the first student, she does a good job of starting off weakly and progressively improving with feedback from Callas.
Tenor Jonathan Speegle plays Anthony “Tony” Candolino, the Tenor. His character is an over-confident and simple-minded young man who ends up, after a bit of coaching from Maria, revealing an unexpected depth of passion in his singing. Mr. Speegle’s strong voice soars in “Dammi I colori…Rocondita armonia” from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.
The climax of the play is the scene between Maria Callas and Second Soprano Sharon Graham, played by Emily Saénz. Her first brief entrance is earlier in the play, but she immediately leaves the stage after being criticized by the diva for coming to class overdressed. Eventually, she reenters, ready to try again. She does her best to work with Callas and respond to her with respect, but she is driven to her limit by, what she feels are, unreasonable expectations. Ms. Saénz has an absolutely gorgeous and powerful voice. Her Vieni! t’affretta” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth was just wonderful. As an audience member, you feel the same sense of let-down as the character does when Callas responds to her beautiful aria underwhelmed. Of course, Maria Callas would, naturally, have critiques that most people would not, but Sharon lashes out at Callas in frustration and spite, then storms out of the classroom.
What is best about this interpretation is that it is not completely clear whether Maria Callas is self-absorbed and vain, or merely misunderstood. She is obviously going through some internal turmoil, but is it affecting her ability to see the value in others? Is she able to see past herself and critique objectively, or does she judge others only through the lens of her own experience and expectations? It is ultimately left to the audience to decide for themselves whether or not they agree with the fiery accusations of her fictional student, Sharon. Both have strong points to make about what art is and should be, and what it takes to be a great artist - and perhaps, what it doesn’t take.
There are so many lessons to be learned here. Greater Lewisville Community Theatre has presented a show full of humor, tragedy, and passion that will make you think, inspire conversation and make art come alive in a new way. Go see it, then go home and, if you’re a musician, listen to the real master classes, as well.
Greater Lewisville Community Theatre, 160 W Main Street. Lewisville, Texas 75057
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm, February 12-28, 2016. Tickets are $18 for adults, $16 for 65 and over/18 and younger. Reserved seating. Call 972-221-SHOW (7469) to reserve tickets. ** RATED PG-13 **