It’s a softer-grained “Master Class” than usual in Long Beach, but just try to look away. Although more muted than some past editions, this adroit International City Theatre revival of Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning fantasia on Maria Callas’ life and art carries real immediacy and thematic point.
We’re in 1971, when the semi-retired Callas taught a series of voice classes at Juilliard. This historic event underscores McNally’s post-Pirandello mélange of biographical data and fictionalized histrionics. As La Divina (the expert Gigi Bermingham) enters, with designer Jeremy Pivnick ‘s house lights still up, she swiftly halts our applause -- “We’re here to work.”
She means it. Bermingham is less ferocious than certain predecessors, yet her innate spontaneity and native wit are their own rewards. Note her deft fielding of audience ad-libs, her acidic banter with accompanist Manny (the excellent James Lent). Or her wry effrontery at an unimpressed stagehand (Jeremy Mascia) or tacit flirtation with tenor Anthony (clarion-voiced Tyler Milliron, charming, albeit overdoing the smarmy).
True, Bermingham’s nuanced intensity doesn’t quite justify the terror she inspires in soprano Sophie; then again, appealing, understated Danielle Skalsky isn’t exactly the gauche dumpling that McNally wrote. Conversely, as future diva-in-training Sharon, the wonderful Jennifer Shelton walks off the printed page, riveting with Bermingham in their Act 2 face-off.
Despite the odd idiosyncrasies, director Todd Nielsen and company nail the twin coups that cap each act. JR Bruce’s recital hall set becomes La Scala, Dave Mickey’s sound design reproduces the inimitable voice, and Bermingham goes for the elegiac jugular. This may not be a “Master Class” for the ages, but it nevertheless sings acutely to our era.
“Master Class,” International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 14. $38 and $45. (562) 436-4610 or www.ictlongbeach.org. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.