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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Master Class

You don't have a look&mdash Callas, as she singles out and scrutinizes individuals (ostensibly students) in the audience.
Barbara Walsh in Master Class
Barbara Walsh in Master Class
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Terrence McNally's histrionic ode to opera diva Maria Callas has been a formidable vehicle for a dramatic diva ever since it opened on Broadway in 1995 (a couple of years before Curtainup was launched). The author, the winner of four Tony-Awards, including Best Play, was evidently intoxicated by the Callas legend and has no doubt been thrilled to see such stars as Zoe Caldwell, Dixie Carter, Patti LuPone, among others, play Callas. Barbara Walsh has been added to the names of interpreters of the " monstre sacre" Callas' self-ascribed label. Walsh, a Broadway veteran who was lauded most recently for her performance as Joanne in John Doyle's Tony-winning revival of Company, is doing justice to the Callas-invoked idiosyncrasies and temperament.

Just as McNally has ceremoniously extended Callas' celebrity and, indeed, expanded her range beyond the boundaries of Callas' both real and imagined world, Walsh also picks up the gauntlet with a unique artistry of her own. As the title indicates, and the facts report, Callas conducted master classes at the Juilliard School in the early 1970s. These, after her tortured voice had disintegrated and after she was dumped by her insensitive lover Aristotle Onassis. McNally allows his Callas to bare her soul, share her pain and most of all express her bitterness, mostly as it regards the crude and cruel Onassis and her early cast-off husband G.B. Meneghini. This all happens in the somewhat delirious context of soliloquies, reveries, and recitals.

The set has been handsomely designed by Alexander Dodge to presumably invoke with its cherry-stained wood paneling the stage and interior of Alice Tully Hall. Nice touch. This is where Callas is consigned to excoriate, if not completely decimate, not only the three voice students brave enough to enter, but the indifferent and oblivious stagehand (Ryan King) as well. Manny, the timid but accomplished piano accompanist, is played quite affably by Andrew Gerle.

Walsh makes her grand entrance in a snappy black pants ensemble with a turquoise blouse, a distinctive look created by costume designer Anne Kennedy. Callas then greets Sophie (Lauren Worsham) "her first victim", a petrified and tremulous young woman whom Callas quickly dissolves into a state of sheer terror. "Get a look" says Callas to this pathetic creature who has dared to wear a non-descript outfit with a skirt that Callas ridicules for being too short. Walsh has effectively adapted "the look" of the inimitable Callas.

Punctuated with put-downs and snide remarks about her operatic rivals, as well as dishy Opera-newsy asides to us, the fictional class observers, Callas proceeds to humiliate Sophie as she tries to get through the first bars of a testy Bellini aria, a fragment that triggers Callas' memory. Except for the light on the singer's face, the focus is on Callas as we are taken back (with the help of some projections of La Scala) to Callas' triumph in La Sonnambula.

There is an amusing confrontation with Tony, a tall, handsome self-satisfied tenor, played with feisty moxie by Mike McGowan, who sparks Callas' romantic side, and more memories, as he sings "Recondita Armonia" from Puccini's Tosca, one of Callas' signature operas. Finally, there is the devastating effect upon Callas after she is told off by a not-so-easily-intimidated soprano, well-acted and impressively sung by Sarah Uriarte Berry. Ms Berry, who received Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for her role as Giuseppi's wife in The Light in the Piazza, gets a deserved round of applause for her singing of the brutal letter scene from Verdi's Macbeth. (This is the role that catapulted Audra McDonald to fame).

You don't have to be a worshiper of the illustrious singer to empathize with the prescribed notes of poignancy or purpose of Master Class. Callas, whose incomparable, steel-belted voice steered a new course in modern operatic singing, was inarguably a larger-than-life personality. The sound engineer, however, must take responsibility for making Walsh sound as if her voice was coming out of a tin can.

Just as today's theater directors and engineers can't resist the temptation to destroy the sound of the human voice, McNally also wasn't able to resist the temptation to magnify the mystique around Callas. Walsh responds with tasty, testy samplings of the idiosyncratic full-of-contradictions Callas. As a result, the three young singers, these fictional targets of her acerbic unhelpful criticism, appear credibly within this otherwise dangerously heightened realm of reality.

The dynamics of the often hilariously and sometimes infuriating script can be a bit trying on the nerves, but the experience as a whole is rewarding. Walsh and director Wendy C. Goldberg are to be commended for their concerted regard for the material. It is interesting to consider that while McNally was expressly inspired by real events in the life of Callas, very little of it rings true. But who wants truth when what is at stake is to exalt the persona of one of the most tormented, tempestuous and temperamental artists of the 20th century.

Master Class
By Terrence McNally
Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg
Cast: Barbara Walsh, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Andrew Gerle, Ryan King, Mike McGowan, Lauren Worsham.
Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge
Costume Design: Anne Kennedy
Lighting Design: Josh Epstein
Sound Design: Randy Hansen
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
(973) 376 4343
Tickets ($25 - $92)
Performances: Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 PM; Thursdays at 8 PM; Fridays at 2 and 8 PM; Saturdays at 2 and 8 PM; and Sundays at 7:30 PM
Opened 03/08/09 Ends 04/05/09
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/08/09


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