Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Rita Moreno's Spin On Terrence Mcnally's Master Class

Also see Richard's reviews of Treasure Island and Drifting Elegant

Donna Lynne Champlin, Michael Wiles and Rita Moreno
Berkeley Rep concludes its 2003/04 Season with Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award winner Rita Moreno in her Berkeley Repertory debut as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's Master Class. This marks my fifth time in seeing a different Maria in this very demanding role. Undoubtedly, this is a dream part for an actress since it is one of the most difficult roles in today's theatre. The attraction is due mostly to the theatrical melding of personalities on stage. The part demands a top professional who is able to play many facets of Ms. Callas's fiery temper. The actress must be on stage all of the time and must have an immediate connection with the audience.

Svelte Rita Moreno, dressed in Callas's trademark black Chanel pantsuit, has the audience on her side as soon as she comes strolling out on the left side of the stage (since there is no center door which Zoe Caldwell, Patti LuPone and Faye Dunaway made their rather dramatic entrances). Rita's entrance is a "This is a workshop and not a theatre piece" entrance. Even when the audience breaks out in applause at her entrance, she raises her right hand to stop the clapping, saying "this is a workshop and I don't want your applause. You're here to observe the students. Forget about me." However, how can you forget about her since Ms. Moreno has the 3 C's (class, courage and charisma) for the role?

Master Class is more of a character study than an actual play. The setting is a concert hall. Three young and hopefully rising singers are to sing an aria of their own choosing in front of the great diva. Callas will give her opinion of each presentation. However, the diva is more interested in discussing her own work and life rather than evaluating the talents of her pupils. She talks directly to the audience most of the time, telling them what makes a good performance. "You must have the look," she says. Without "the look," you are nowhere.

Rita Moreno has two major soliloquies in each act of the two acts. The soliloquy in the first act, about her character's relationship with the vulgar Ari Onassis, is powerful with the thrilling voice of the real Callas singing a recorded aria from Bellini's La Sonnamblula over the speakers. Director Moises Kaufman attempts to make this soliloquy more theatrical than in prior productions I have seen. He has made an unnecessary diversion of having a female, who represents a young Callas making her early conquest at La Scala, singing the Bellini aria on a catwalk high above the stage. It detracts from the dominant solo performance from Ms. Moreno.

Moreno's second important soliloquy is also been given a theatrical treatment with a large mirror sliding down in back, showing the audience at the theater. Theatrically, it is impressive, but it detracts from the powerhouse performance of Ms. Moreno. The sounds of the real Callas singing seem lost in this large theatre during these solos.

Rita Moreno plays Callas more humorously then Caldwell, LuPone or Dunaway. Caldwell's performance of the diva was arrogant, cruel and mesmerizing. LuPone emoting was entirely in keeping with the divine diva, while Dunaway played the role as a multifaceted individual who could be cruel and yet hurt at the same time (almost a Joan Crawford imitation). Ms. Moreno has elected to tone down the cruel and fiery nature of the opera singer. She injects more humor into the role. However, she does have that Mediterranean feel about the character. Her Latino background is more in line with the Greek Maria Callas.

The three young singers are very good. Sherry Boone (in the role created by Audra McDonald) is excellent as the terrified student, and she makes her character more than a cliché. She really gives a brutal performance as "Lady Macbeth" in the murderous scene of the Verdi opera. Her voice is full of reverberation and she compares favorably to McDonald. Even her tears at the end of the audition are heartfelt. Scott Scully, as a naive egocentric tenor who wants to be rich and famous like Mario Lanza, is good in his role. Scott has a superb tenor voice singing Puccini's aria "Recondita armonia" from Tosca. The third singer, soprano Donna Lynne Champlin, is excellent as a graceless singer who just sings without thinking about the character. Michael Wiles plays the mild mannered pianist Manny, who is skillful at playing the piano. Owen Murphy wanders in and out as the stagehand with attitude.

Mark Wendland's set is utilitarian. It is a small curve set resembling a small rehearsal room in a concert hall. This is in the center of the very large stage that shows all of the background, cords, lights, flats. There is no projection of the La Scala on this wood-like wall set.

Master Class runs through July 18th at the Berkeley Rep Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-888 or 4BRTix or

The next production is Mike Daisey's one man show called Doing Time @

Photo: Ken Friedman

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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