Carolyn Hennesy gives one of the year’s most dazzling performances as the legendary Maria Callas in the virtual one-woman-show that is Terrence McNally’s Master Class, the inaugural season opener of the newly rechristened, spiffily refurbished Garry Marshall Theatre.

Taking as its inspiration a series of Juilliard School master classes given by Callas in the early ‘70s, Terrence McNally’s 1996 Best Play Tony winner introduces us to La Divina long past her glory days but still capable of commanding a stage.

Flashing back to her World War II teen years, Callas recalls the “fat, ugly girl” she once was, then takes sly digs at would-be rivals Joan Sutherland (“she does her best”) and Renata Scotto (“know your limitations”) before going on to recount her 38-curtain-call debut at La Scala.

In addition to these trips down memory lane, Callas issues stern warnings that there is to be no applause, berates unsuspecting audience targets for not having “a look,” and keeps on leaving us wanting more with a signature, “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 but insightful tongue.

Finally, and most dramatically, McNally gives us two extended flashbacks, one in each act, that have Maria reliving her tempestuous love affair with Aristotle Onassis, for whom she left an adoring husband only to have the Greek tycoon insist upon the most devastating decision any woman can make.

In her first crack at Callas, Hennesy may share the Garry Marshall stage with five other actors, three of whom show off exquisite operatic pipes, but it is the Ovation, L.A. Drama Critics, and Daytime Emmy winner’s show all the way.

Not only is the actress’s physical transformation uncanny (snaps to costume designer Michèle Young’s sleek black slacks and cream-colored blouse, some dramatic eye makeup, and wig designer Laura Caponera’s sky-high bouffant do), with her “sort-of-Greek accent” (the Queens-born Callas didn’t actually move to Athens till she was six), majestic bearing, withering stares, and knack for the sly dig, Hennesy’s performance is its own master class, and never more so than when Callas descends into memories of the emotional battering and sexual humiliation she endured from her billionaire Greek lover.

Under Dimitri Tosca’s supremely imaginative, equally nuanced direction, Hennesy’s fellow actors deliver one gem of a performance after another, in particular the captivating Maegan McConnell, who takes the usually forgettable Sophie DePalma (“not an ideal name for a career, but it’s good enough”) and gives her heart and soul and (when she finally gets to get a note in edgewise) an angelic soprano.

Sophie’s fellow “victims” are given vivid life by Landon Shaw II as tall, dark, handsome, and hunky Anthony Candolino and by Aubrey Trujillo-Scarr as Sharon Graham, the last soprano on earth you’d expect to stand up to La Divina, and both sing quite gloriously.

As accompanist Manny, Roy Abramsohn not only tickles the grand-piano ivories to perfection, he gives Hennesy’s wicked punch lines precisely the setups they deserve, and Jeff Campanella’s studly nonchalance as a stagehand who wouldn’t know Callas from Calabasas makes his every entrance worth waiting for.

Scenic designer François-Pierre Couture’s wood-paneled concert hall set holds multiple surprises thanks to JM Montecalvo’s uber-dramatic lighting, and never more so than when a bouquet of red roses gets launched.

Design kudos too to the rest of Young’s character-appropriate outfits, Robert Arturo Ramirez’s pitch-perfect sound design (hearing the real Callas subtly underscore Hennesy’s memories proves particularly stunning), and properties designer John McElveney for all those roses and much much more.

Emily Lehrer is production stage manager. Additional program credits are shared by Susan Garyantes (assistant scenic designer), Rebecca Raines (sound operator), and Claudine Carlson (opera consultant). Louis Avila and Allison Scarlett Jaye are understudies.

Said to be one of Garry Marshall’s favorite plays, Terrence McNally’s Master Class proves an ideal choice to reopen the theater that now pays tribute to his legend. With Carolyn Hennesy giving the performance of a lifetime, this Master Class is masterful indeed.

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Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
September 22, 2017
Photos: Chelsea Sutton



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