Monday, March 30, 2009

Theater Review: Master Class

Location: Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Dr., Millburn, NJ

Website: Paper Mill Playhouse

Starring: Barbara Walsh

My Review: I have a strange sort of affection for the Paper Mill Playhouse. It’s in the middle of nowhere in New Jersey, and I may have to give up my New Yorker status for voluntarily going to Jersey for theater. But the Paper Mill Playhouse is a theater of outstanding reputation where plenty of Broadway stars either made their debut or continue to appear at (I bet you didn’t know it’s where Anne Hathaway got her start by attending their theater classes as a kid). It’s also an adorable theater, created within an old converted paper mill, that sits overlooking a stream, has ample seating, and offers various art and photography galleries to browse during intermission.

Having missed the production of Master Class that premiered on Broadway in the 1990s, I was glad to have the opportunity to check it out at the Paper Mill. The play depicts a master class that the great opera diva Maria Callas taught at Julliard in 1971. She directly addresses the audience, as though we are the class she is teaching, but when it comes time for her to critique specific students, they stick to only allowing professional actors to portray a select few music protégés. Callas critiques each of her onstage students harshly, but when she loses herself in various monologues about her voice training, opera career, and troubled personal life, you realize everything this woman has been through that gives her every right to judge other singers so severely.

While she occasionally shares the stage with others, Master Class is essentially a one-woman show that completely belongs to whoever is playing Maria Callas; the quality of the entire production is determined by the actress cast in this lead role. Luckily, this production got it completely right in casting Barbara Walsh as Callas. I saw Walsh in the recent Broadway revival of Company as the brash and boozy Joanne, and her brashness works just as beautifully in Master Class as it did in Company. As Callas, she’s outspoken and often rude, but makes it clear that this overly critical persona is all due to being a musical perfectionist who places her art above everything else in the world, including sensitivity for the feelings of others. The deeply introspective monologues that Callas gets lost in had a tendency to run a bit long and focus too heavily on the melodrama of her life, but that’s the fault of the playwright, and Walsh performs each one with such finesse that you actually feel sympathy for a woman you just watched cut a young student’s performance to shreds.

The three actors who play Callas’ students all do a fine job, but the play is so much about Callas and Callas alone, that they are merely props in her play, much like the grand piano that sits center stage throughout the show.

Bottom Line: Even if you know little to nothing about Maria Callas, or opera in general, Master Class is a fantastic play for anyone who loves music or seeing the process that great performers go through to become great. The production at the Paper Mill is playing for just one more week, but there’s bound to be future productions of Master Class to check out. Just pray that they cast the right woman to be Callas.

No comments:

Post a Comment