Review: “Master Class”

Maria Callas (Janet Ulrich Brooks, right) draws upon past milestones in her career while teaching soprano Sophie (Molly Hernández) in TimeLine’s Master Class. (Photo by Lara Goetsch)

RECOMMENDED

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Dec. 9
Tickets: $42.50-$56.50
Phone: 773-327-5252

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Another masterful performance by the incomparable Janet Ulrich Brooks is the main reason to see TimeLine Theatre Company’s production of Terrence McNally’s 1996 Tony Award-winning “Master Class,” but it’s not the only one.

The first-rate ensemble and intimate staging are among the others.

Ulrich Brooks portrays opera star Maria Callas, and the play was inspired by two-dozen classes she taught in the early 1970s at the Julliard School of Music in New York. These were sold-out ticketed events for fans and critics as well as the aspiring singers being instructed, and the playwright, who attended, casts the audience as these spectators who’ve come to see the legendary diva. She hadn’t performed in public in many years due to, some claim, a decline in her voice.

From the moment she enters the recital hall, simply but strikingly designed by Arnel Sanciano with a curving back wall, Ulrich Brooks’ Callas commands the stage. Dressed all in black with a loose-fitting cut-velvet jacket (costumes by Sally Dolembo), she is, by turns, businesslike, impatient, judgmental, caustic, admiring, passionate, and occasionally even kind. She has an air of noblesse oblige as she greets her awestruck accompanist, Manny (Stephen Boyer). Her annoyance clearly shows when the footstool and cushion she requested for her high chair fail to materialize instantly, and she takes the Stagehand (Raymond Hutchison) to task.

“La Divina” also lectures the audience on everything from the importance of having “a look” if you want to succeed to the essentials of dedication and discipline. She repeatedly admonishes us that it’s all about the work, the music, and not about her when we know, of course, that it is about her, especially as she drops personal tidbits like those about her rivalries with Renata Tebaldi and other famous singers.

Callas teaches three students during the play, and each of the two acts also includes an impassioned expository stream-of-consciousness sequence that provides insight into her life and obsessions. These focus on her early poverty, rise to fame, and struggle to transform herself from heavy and ugly into a svelte diva, as well as her marriage to the much older Giovanni Battista Meneghini, whom she left for a love affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis before he left her for Jacqueline Kennedy.

Director Nick Bowling doesn’t quite manage to integrate these biographical sections with the rest of the evening. By contrast, the lessons are fascinating and offer some well-timed humor plus a nice progression. The first student is nervous soprano Sophie (Molly Hernandez), who gets some harsh criticism of everything from her phrasing to her acting as she attempts the difficult “Ah! non credea mirarti” from Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”

A second soprano, Sharon (Keirsten Hodgens), arrives next but soon flees after a put-down of her gown, only to return later to perform Lady Macbeth’s opening aria from Verdi’s opera, bringing down the house and impressing her teacher, who is stunned by the student’s righteous rebuke of her unhelpful behavior. Before Sharon’s second coming, though, we meet Tony (Eric Anthony Lopez), a conceited, fame-seeking tenor whose stunning rendition of painter Mario Cavaradossi’s “Recondita armonia” from Puccini’s “Tosca” convinces Callas that he’s a natural and can’t learn anything from her. This is a good thing since all he seems to want is affirmation.

The talent of these opera singers adds to the enjoyment of “Master Class,” and credit also goes to music director Doug Peck for the achievement. Boyer contributes some vocal accompaniment as well as his fine work on the piano. Except for a few slow patches, I was thoroughly engaged throughout the evening.