Behind every great voice there must surely be a story, though few great voices have behind them a story as compelling as that of Maria Callas, the Greek soprano known the world over as La Divina, or so L.A. theatergoers will discover as Master Class, Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning Best Play of 1996, returns to our stages in an all-around superb production at Long Beach’s International City Theatre.

Master Class_1 McNally takes as his inspiration, perhaps not surprisingly, a series of master classes which Callas gave at Juilliard in 1971 and ’72, 48 years old and long past her glory days at La Scala, London’s Royal Opera House, and of course The Met, but still capable of commanding a stage, though no longer as a singer, her legendary soprano having become (in McNally’s words) “a cracked and broken thing.”

Virtually a one-woman-show, Master Class has Callas flashing back to the days of World War II and her daily treks to the conservatory, a self-described “fat, ugly girl” with bad skin and no proper shoes on her feet; taking sly digs at Joan Sutherland (“she does her best”) and Renata Scotto (“know your limitations”), whom others dubbed her “rivals” (as if Maria Callas considered anyone good enough to rival her); and recalling her debut at La Scala and the thirty-seven curtain calls an adoring audience insisted that she take.

In addition to these trips down memory lane, McNally has Callas interacting with us as her Juilliard audience of students and spectators, cautioning us that there is to be no applause, berating certain of us for not having the kind of “look” that will set us immediately apart from others, and again and again leaving us wanting more with a throw-away, “But that’s another story.”

And because there could be no Maria Callas Master Class without human guinea pigs, McNally brings on two sopranos and a tenor to serve as victims of La Divina’s lacerating tongue.

Finally, and most dramatically, McNally gives us two extended flashbacks, one in each act, which have Maria reliving her tempestuous love affair with Aristotle Onassis, for whom she left her husband only to have the Greek tycoon insist that she abort the child he himself had asked her to have.

The original Broadway production of Master Class won Zoe Caldwell a Best Actress Tony, and it’s no wonder. Rarely has a play with a half-dozen speaking characters been more of a one-woman-show, and rarely has a part offered an actress more meat to chew on than Maria Callas.

It is, therefore, perhaps no wonder that Master Class revivals are few and far-between, since how many actresses are there who not only fit the specifics of the role but can bring La Divina to fully three-dimensional life (and master all those lines)?

Master Class_3 Fortunately for International City Theatre, Gigi Bermingham is just such an actress, having won both the Ovation and the LADCC awards for her self-penned (with Diana Hamann) solo show Non-Vital Organs. Looking uncannily like early ‘70s photos of Callas (and happily not decades too old for the role as several of her predecessors have been), Bermingham gives a performance of fire and ice and just about everything in between, resisting every temptation to go over-the-top, ultimately making us care about a woman who probably wasn’t any more likeable in real life than she is when giving a master class.

Master Class_4 Danielle Skalsky is a delight as Callas’ first “victim,” soprano Sophie De Palma (“not an ideal name for a career, but it’s good enough”), whom La Divina scarcely lets sing a note before launching into yet another criticism—of her appearance, of her nerves, of her lack of preparation, of Sophie’s not even bringing a pencil with her to class.

Master Class_5 Tyler Milliron is hunky tenor Anthony Candolino, who has the balls to stand up to Maria Callas and inform her, à la Effie White, that he is telling her, “I’m not going!” Initially so full of himself that his chest seems about to burst with pride before Maria cuts him down to size, Tony’s vocalizing not only ends up enrapturing Callas (no small feat), Milliron’s revelatory performance proves the evening’s most touching, and yes, he does have the pipes to make us believe he could enrapture La Divina.

Master Class_2 Southland treasure Jennifer Shelton gets the role which won Audra McDonald a Featured Actress Tony, and dazzles in it as she has so often before in musical after musical, most recently belting to the rafters in ICT’s Ain’t Misbehavin’. The role of Sharon Graham not only allows Shelton to display the acting chops audiences got to see in ICT’s The Story (a rare straight play on her lengthy résumé), she reveals heretofore unheard gifts as a classical soprano. Even diehard Shelton fans like this reviewer can be prepared to have their breath taken away.

Music director James Lent not only provides expert piano accompaniment as Accompanist Emmanuel “Manny” Weinstock, he banters winningly with Bermingham’s Maria, and Jeremy Mascia makes the very most of his every delicious moment as a Stagehand who doesn’t know (and couldn’t care less) who Maria Callas is—and how delectable is it to see La Divina cut down to size.

And of course none of the above performers could do quite as stellar work without a Master Director like Todd Nielsen, at the top of his game here.

Master Class_6 Speaking of being at the top of one’s game, how about this for a design team—scenic designer JR Bruce, who has converted the ICT thrust stage into the next best thing to a Juilliard lecture hall; lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick, whose lighting morphs from what you’d see in the abovementioned lecture hall to something considerably more dramatic as Callas’ memories take her back in time; resident costume designer Kim DeShazo, who has given each character precisely the outfit McNally intended for them, with special snaps for Sophie’s cotton-candy spike heels; resident sound designer Dave Mickey, who once again does expert work, particularly in flashbacks in which we hear the real Callas’ voice; resident property designers Patty and Gordon Bliss, who provide the music scores and flowers and cushion and footstool required by McNally’s script; and resident hair and wig designer Anthony Gagliardi, who recreate that classic ‘70s Callas look in addition to giving Skalsky and Shelton just-right dos.

Master Class is produced by caryn desai. Pat Loeb is production stage manager. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. Richie Ferris is casting assistant and “Stagehand” Mascia doubles as assistant stage manager.

As the first major L.A.-area regional production of Master Class since East West Players’ in 2007, International City Theatre’s solid gold revival merits the attention of every Southland theater and/or opera lover. With Gigi Bermingham absolutely divine as La Divina, it doesn’t get any more masterful than this masterful Master Class.

International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
March 24, 2013
Photos: Suzanne Mapes

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