Chicago Theatre Review
The Diva Directs
Master Class – Theo Ubique
Before the houselights even dim, diva Maria Callas steps onto the Julliard lecture hall stage (authentically recreated in detail by scenic designer Adam L.Veness) and speaks directly to her audience. Chosen from hundreds of applicants, we are her 25 specially selected vocal students, eager for her words of wisdom gleaned from a lifelong career in opera. From that first moment, the astonishingly talented, two-time Jeff Award-winning Kelli Harrington not only becomes Maria Callas, she transforms her audience into her anxious students. The performance turns interactive with the audience becoming Miss Callas‘ primary acting partner. The result is an artistic immersion, created by playwright Terrence McNally (“The Lisbon Traviata,” “The Ritz”) and directed here by Theo Ubique’s incomparable Fred Anzevino, with musical direction and piano accompaniment by maestro Jeremy Ramey.
This 1996 Drama Desk and Tony Award-winning play is made for this kind of intimate setting. The drama is primarily a one-woman show, with Kelli Harrington holding court on a stage shared only by Mr. Ramey at the baby grand. Eventually three easily-intimidated students join her for mentoring: Sophie (the talented Rachel Klippel who, coincidentally, played Harrington’s daughter Clara in this theatre’s production of “Light in the Piazza”), Tony, the golden-throated tenor Kevin R. Siembor, and Sharon, Ashlee Hardgrave, in a bravura vocal performance supported her many program credits. After initially fleeing the stage in fright however, it’s Sharon whose return precipitates Harrington’s final monologue about sacrificing for one’s art.
While Ms. Harrington’s acting is natural and believable, her lilting dialogue conversationally lifelike, the same cannot be said for her three students. One can only conclude that nerves have caused these would-be opera stars to deliver their dialogue with such wide-eyed wonderment that often smacks of insincerity. The irony is that their teacher is constantly reminding them they must “be” the music, the lyrics and the character they’re portraying. But, after all, this is 97% Callas’ show. She berates, lampoons and criticizes everyone: her students (“Where are they? I don’t have all day. I have a hair appointment”), the management (“Where’s my cushion? I asked for a cushion.”) and even her audience (“Not everyone has style; you know what I mean.”) Influenced by her students’ musical selections, Ms. Harrington often retreats into Callas’ memories, recalling ill treatment by the press, her contempt for her rivals, a failed marriage to Giovanni Meneghini and an affair with Greek millionaire, Aristotle Onassis.
This brilliant production ultimately leaves audiences with the image of a perfectionist who expected nothing less from her students. Hoping to impart the wisdom from her collective experiences to music’s future generation, the audience sees a woman who was first and foremost a hyper-critical artist, and whose personal happiness occurred only when she was on a stage performing for her adoring public.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Oct. 14-Nov. 24 by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Rogers Park, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 800-595-4849 or by visiting www.theo-u.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.