BWW Review: MASTER CLASS at Garry Marshall Theatre, or What Becomes a Legend Most?

In 1970, Maria Callas posed for Blackglama's iconic "What Becomes a Legend Most" ad campaign. The famous black and white Richard Avedon photographs shot against a simple gray background captured the glamour and allure of black mink featuring some of the most iconic faces in the world. It was indeed a look, and Callas knew it was for her.

Callas talks about the importance of having a look in Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning play, MASTER CLASS, based on a series of vocal master classes the opera singer gave at the Juilliard School of Music in 1971 and '72. Though it is written for a cast of six, it is essentially a one woman play centering on Callas, La Divina, as she was known during her incredible singing career. She may say, in the first few minutes of the play, that it's not about her, but the audience knows it's all about her.

She was a woman consumed by becoming a star and spent her life perfecting her voice and developing a catalog of roles that bridged the soprano repertoire in a way few have been able to do since. Callas could sing everything from Wagner to Verdi to Puccini to Bellini and adapt her voice to the requirements of each in turn. It isn't any wonder singers still study her today in the hopes that a little bit of the Callas magic will rub off on them.

Carolyn Hennesy takes on the role of Maria Callas in the first production at the new Garry Marshall Theatre, long known to its Toluca Lake neighbors as The Falcon. Rechristened, and sporting a redesigned lobby that could double as a sleek modern art gallery, it all but glistens with possibility. The choice, then, to begin the theatre's first ticketed season with MASTER CLASS is a smart one. It's definitely a way to make an entrance, another lesson offered by Callas in the pages of the play, and co-artistic directors Dimitri Toscas (who also directs the play) and Joseph Leo Bwarie have done themselves proud.

But the real question is Hennesy as La Divina? Small, but mighty, poised, prickly, opinionated, disdainful, luminous, and utterly enthralling. There are times she is as cool and still as a statue but you can feel the volcano itching to blow just beneath the surface. Her resemblance to Callas (impeccable costuming by Michèle Young and wig design by Laura Caponera) is uncanny and when the light catches her just right, all you can think of is the phrase, "A face that launched a thousand ships."

Heartbreaking truths about the price Callas paid to become such a star are brilliantly delivered in flashback scenes and will surprise anyone not familiar with the details of her personal life. Nuanced and containing a world of colors, Hennesy reveals a sensitivity to the material that makes this one of the most striking performances of the 2017 theatre season. In perhaps the most devastating few seconds of the entire play, she attempts to sing. No matter how many times I have seen it, it is still always shocking in its vulnerability.

The three young singers who participate in the master class display enough operatic training to satisfy those looking for authenticity. Maegan McConnell is Sophie, the giggling ingénue who must perform Amina's aria from La Sonnambula, "Ah! non credea mirarti" if Callas will only let her get started.

As Tony, Landon Shaw II proves he can shrug off his flirtatious tenor front and show that he's serious about his career. When he finally sings Cavaradossi's aria, "Dammi i colori" from Tosca and the last notes float away, we're left with a haunting moment between he and Hennesy.

Sharon Graham (Aubrey Trujillo-Scarr), the determined soprano who intends to sing the Letter aria and cabaletta from Verdi's Macbeth is the fiercest challenger to Callas' composure. As the two spar off with increasing intensity and decorum goes out the window - along with any remaining humor - she will match Hennesy sting for sting.

BWW Review: MASTER CLASS at Garry Marshall Theatre, or What Becomes a Legend Most?
Roy Abramsohn at the piano, Aubrey Trujillo-Scarr, and Carolyn Hennesy

The gorgeous scenic design by Francois-Pierre Couture takes into account the acoustics necessary in a concert hall and uses beautifully polished wood panels, warmly lit by JM Montecalvo, to achieve its effect. It allows Hennesy to use her sotto voce and still be heard in the house.

Garry Marshall Theatre's elegantly crafted production of MASTER CLASS is a gorgeous example of pairing the right actor with the right play at the right moment in a theatre's evolution. Callas says one must know one's assets in order to create art. Rest assured they do here.

September 22 - October 22, 2017
Garry Marshall Theatre
4252 Riverside Drive
Burbank, CA 91505
Tickets: (818) 955-8101

Photo credit: Chelsea Sutton

BWW Review: MASTER CLASS at Garry Marshall Theatre, or What Becomes a Legend Most?
Roy Abramsohn, Maegan McConnell, and Carolyn Hennesy

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