MASTER CLASS Theatre ReviewLA audiences who love musical theater are in for a special treat: Two — count ‘em, not one, but TWO! — productions are currently on the boards, celebrating a couple of the greatest songstresses of the 20th century who both died before their time. The Ahmanson is mounting “End of the Rainbow,” the Judy Garland bioplay starring Tracie Bennett, at Downtown’s Music Center, while International City Theatre is presenting Terrence McNally’s masterful “Master Class” at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center. While the Tony Award-nominated “Rainbow” focuses on a pop culture singer of movie musical numbers and show tunes, the Tony Award-winning “Master” takes theatergoers to the realm of “high art,” featuring the life and career of Maria Callas, one of opera’s top sopranos and stars.
Gigi Bermingham (whom I’d previously enjoyed in the Blank’s “Cradle Will Rock”) is stellar as the egocentric, strong willed Callas who, after leaving the stage, taught a series of classes at New York’s Julliard School. She is alternately insightful and “inciteful,” fulsome in her praise and fierce in her criticism, as “La Divina” draws upon her truly astonishing knowledge of the operatic world, as well as upon her none too happy private life (a bit of a tragedy), as she teaches a series of erstwhile would-be opera singers.
Through its creatively rendered stagecraft (kudos to scenic designer J.R. Bruce, lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick and sounder designer Dave Mickey), McNally’s well-written script and not least of all via Bermingham virtuoso performance, we enter Callas’ feverish mind. A line of dialogue triggers a flashback and we jump cut, so to speak, from the lesson on hand to the soprano’s tempestuous marriage with an older man, her affair with shipping tycoon (I believe that’s his actual first and middle name) Aristotle Onassis or to one of her endless stage clashes — or, as the case may be — triumphs.
Unlike “End of the Rainbow,” where there is little dialogue or exposition to reveal why Garland abused substances, “Master’s” playwright gives us plenty of grist for the mill to understand Callas’ mind — both conscious and unconscious. For instance, we learn that Callas had been grossly overweight in her younger days and considered unattractive. This was jarring to me because as a boy I only recall her striking persona and Bermingham herself is extremely attractive, exuding a strongly sensuous presence.
In any case, some may feel that being derided as “fat” and so on is no excuse for Callas’ callousness regarding the way she treats her hapless students at the Julliard classes she presides over. She cuts soprano Sophie De Palma (Danielle Skalsky) off after barely a note and berates her, as well as some of the other pupils. La Divina takes the wannabes to task for pursuing stardom and celebrity (as if she were immune to them herself, LOL!) at the expense of artistry. Callas memorably clashes with Sharon Graham (Jennifer Shelton, who was also great in ICT’s recent production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’”).
Is Callas, like Cameron Diaz, a bad teacher? With her infamously fiery temperament (a word forever associated with La Divina) and frequent disparagements, Callas could never serve as a diplomat (except, perhaps, with bellicose ambassadors such as John Bolton, ha ha ha). But drawing upon her profound grounding in the classics and technique she does seem to impart greater awareness to most of her awestruck students. Callas is one of those people who does not suffer fools gladly, but when she does see genuine talent, she does recognize and praise it. Like a diamond with rough edges, Callas’ genius shines through and inspires.
And not least of all thanks to Bermingham’s portrayal of the troubled artiste, who by the time she’d reached her mid-forties had reputedly blown much of her most awesome gift: That divine voice. Perhaps in her quest for the heights La Divina hit the high notes once too often. This being the case, most of the singing in this production is done by Callas’ aspiring students, in particular by the lovely Ms. Shelton who once again “misbehaves” and almost blows the roof off of the ICT.
So thee-a-tuh fan, if you can only see one of the dueling divas, should it be Tracie Bennett’s Judy or Gigi Bermingham’s Maria? If music is first and foremost for you as a theatergoer, you might prefer the more music-centric “End of the Rainbow.” But if drama is more your thing as a ticketbuyer, “Master Class” might be just the ticket. If this is your introduction to Callas, by the end of the evening you might be singing: “I just met a girl named Maria!”
And now, a word from our “sponsor” — i.e., your humble scribbler: At the conclusion of the performance I attended of “Tomorrow” there was a talkback with playwright Donald Freed and John Perrin Flynn, artistic director the Rogue Machine theatre company. During the talkback Flynn lamented the current state of theatre, which he described as being in “crisis.” Far be it for me to disagree with the distinguished, award-winning Flynn, who has long been an estimable force on the L.A. stage scene. Flynn may very well be correct, especially from the commercial point of view, in terms of troubles financing plays, actors and other theatre artists being able to make a living from their playhouses, and so on. And don’t even get me started on the constant recycling and retreads of tired old content from one medium to another — from comic book to movie to stage and so on! — that predominates on Broadway nowadays!
But both “Tomorrow” and “Master Class” deal to greater or lesser degrees with versions of Shakespeare’s immortal “MacBeth.” And then we have “End of the Rainbow” on the boards at the Ahmanson and the powerfully poignant drama “Tribes” at the Mark Taper Forum, and so on. I am NOT arguing that theatre in L.A. is without its problems, but as a frequent theatergoer L.A. offers a cornucopia of productions — many of them, such as all of the aforementioned, of high quality — that we should remember that our beloved City of the Angels has the second highest number of live stages in the nation (second only to New York). As a lover and reviewer of live theatre your humble scrivener’s biggest problems is that there just aren’t enough nights — and matinees — to cover Los Angeles’ embarrassment of theatrical riches, from our flagship venues to modest 99-seaters. And that “Master Class” is among the richest, featuring the divine Ms. Bermingham.“Master Class” is being performed on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. at the International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90802 through April 14. For more info: (562) 436-4610; www.InternationalCityTheatre.com.
Thursday, 4 April 2013