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Arts & Entertainment

Theater Review: Master Class

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 7

By Ben Miles

Gigi Bermingham

Though “Master Class” was written by Terrence McNally, just eighteen years ago, in 1995, it already has an illustrious history. Initially staged by the Philadelphia Theatre Company in collaboration with Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, the show quickly ascended to Broadway where it ran for 598 performances, earning Tony Awards for its stars, Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald.

Since then, several luminaries of the theater have populated the roles in “Master Class,” including Patti LuPone, Dixie Carter and Tyne Daly. And now, So Cal’s own homegrown diva, Gigi Bermingham, takes on the mighty role of soprano extraordinaire Maria Callas at Long Beach’s International City Theatre through April 14.

Lucidly directed by Todd Nielsen (with superb design support by JR Bruce, set; Jeremy Pivnick, lighting; Kim DeShazo, costumes; Anthony Gagliardi, hair and wigs; Dave Mickey, sound), “Master Class” is presented as if we in the audience are students attending Maria Callas’ master class in voice. Bermingham’s Callas rules over this group of students, inquiring (“Is this lighting okay?”), badgering (“Do you want to teach this master class?” she implores to one ill-responsive attendee), and demanding (“May I get a footstool here?” she inveighs. “Can I have a [seat] cushion, please?” she bellows in another instance). It is a bemused stagehand that tends to these constant requests (Jeremy Mascia in a most natural characterization).

Nevertheless, through these behaviors we glimpse Callas’ dedication to the art and craft of singing in opera. We witness her reverence to the theater and see her commitment technique and to teaching. When the first student she encounters, first soprano Sophie De Palma (Danielle Skalsky demonstrating impressive vocal chops) tells Callas that she’s “trying,” Callas retorts that “Audiences don’t pay to see us try. They pay to see us do.”We understand Callas’ devotion to consummate performing. It’s another way of saying the show must go on.

We experience Callas’ tense interaction with tenor Anthony Candolino (Tyler Milliron displaying authentic abilities as a tenor). She confronts him in a manner that would intimidate many; he, however, is brave enough to push back, making for a sound dramatic encounter.

Callas’ “session” with second soprano Sharon Graham (the lovely and vocally astute Jennifer Shelton) is also telling. Intimidated by Callas, the student flees the stage under duress, only to return and literally face the music, and regain her pride.

Accompanied by prized piano man Emmanuel Weinstock (James Lent, who also serves as music director, lends a gentle portrayal), we see the self-involved nature of this diva among divas. Every student Callas teaches ends up provoking a story or remembrance from her. We learn about her life in Greece during World War Two. We hear lurid details of her affair with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. And, of course, we get an earfull regarding Callas’ ethical code when it comes to opera, the theater and performing.

Though Berminghan’s interpretation of Callas is loaded with gravitas, credibility and charisma, right down to her Arianna Huffington-like accent, McNally’s script may prove too pedantic for some and too profane for others. Actually based on Callas’ time as a teacher at the Julillard School, “Master Class” is, nonetheless, a learning experience for all.

“Master Class” continues at International City Theatre through April 14. The theater is located at 300 East Ocean Boulevard, Long Beach. Evening performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations, call (562) 436-4610. For online ticketing and further information, visit