Moreno Excels in Berkeley Rep’s ‘Master Class’

By Betsy Hunton Special to the Planet
Friday June 04, 2004

“No applause, please” the diva commands as she walks on stage at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  

Quite probably the patter of applause heralds the start of a storm of greeting for the multi-award-winning actress, Rita Moreno, who stars in the Rep’s new production of Master Class, Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play about opera singer Maria Callas. After all, we’ve all known about Moreno since she opened in West Side Story decades ago. The woman has won every award in the theatrical world. You name them: Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony, the works. 

The icing on the cake is that there has had to be a slight adjustment in the current run at the Rep, so that Moreno can go to Washington D.C. to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

But it is Maria Callas, the formidable diva herself, who will brook no nonsense—nor will Moreno, who embodies Callas in every second that she is on that stage. The audience members are rapidly whipped into shape. Callas’ wit is sharp, but funny. She will, mind you, throw the audience a bone from time to time during the evening, in the form of a direct comment or so, but she is on stage to conduct her famous singing classes and intends to waste no time.  

First, however, it will be necessary, absolutely necessary, mind you, to make sure that the pillow (in the chair that she probably won’t sit in all night) is at exactly the correct height. As the result of Callas’ various demands, we see rather more than one would expect of Owen Murphy, who plays a stagehand. His portrayal is so convincing that his first appearance on the stage may very well strike you as a minor accident. When he subsequently finds himself running various errands for the nit-picking Callas, his lack of awe is refreshing. 

When Callas finally gets her pillow and so forth organized according to her standards, she becomes gracious enough to greet the talented young piano player, Manny (played by Michael Wiles). He has been well within her view since she stepped on stage, but she has ignored him while she dealt with “more important” matters. He is the first of the awe-stricken neophytes, in his case so overcome by her fame that he can barely speak. 

Sophie, the first of the three students who see themselves as honored to be selected for a lesson with the great singer, is played by Donna Lynn Champlain. One’s sympathies are almost immediately engaged by this awkward, clumsily dressed and eager young woman with the beautiful voice. She is a natural target for the kind of situation she stumbles into with Callas and is naïve enough to say—after most adults would have stormed out in fury—“I think she likes me!” 

We hear only a very few bars of Sophie’s singing. Callas talks away most of the time she consciously spends with the girl and then goes into a reverie. As she recounts her early history, she becomes more and more an object of sympathy and far less the antagonistic, self-centered control-freak that she has appeared so far. Perhaps the fact that her image as a young woman in a white ballet costume dances in the background helps one’s attitude. (Cheree A. Sager is both graceful and deft in this role.) 

Sherry Boone and Scott Scully, who next take their turns as the students Sharon and Tony, are given a somewhat easier time than was poor Sophie. At least each of them gets to demonstrate their very real vocal gifts. In Callas’ second reverie, she relives some of her experiences as the lover of the richest man in the world—and some of the humiliation and losses to which she was subjected in that relationship. Again, she becomes a more sympathetic, as well as a more well-rounded figure. It’s an effective technique and well staged.  

While perhaps it isn’t surprising that Rita Moreno creates such a flawless presentation, it does seem a remarkable feat of casting that the supporting roles are filled with such powerful talent, musically and dramatically. Director Moises Kaufman has created a seemingly flawless production of Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play.›