Bay Street Theater Opens Terrence McNally's 'Master Class' Starring Vicki Lewis - 27 East

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Bay Street Theater Opens Terrence McNally's 'Master Class' Starring Vicki Lewis

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From left, Brett Ryback, Rodney Ingram, Stella Kim, Vicki Lewis, Olivia Hernandez and Ben Rauch during rehearsals of Bay Street Theater's upcoming production of Terrence McNally's

From left, Brett Ryback, Rodney Ingram, Stella Kim, Vicki Lewis, Olivia Hernandez and Ben Rauch during rehearsals of Bay Street Theater's upcoming production of Terrence McNally's "Master Class." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER

Olivia Hernandez and Vicki Lewis during rehearsals of Bay Street Theater's upcoming production of Terrence McNally's

Olivia Hernandez and Vicki Lewis during rehearsals of Bay Street Theater's upcoming production of Terrence McNally's "Master Class." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER

From left, Ben Rauch, Stella Kim, Vicki Lewis, Olivia Hernandez, Brett Ryback and Rodney Ingram during rehearsals of Bay Street Theater's upcoming production of Terrence McNally's

From left, Ben Rauch, Stella Kim, Vicki Lewis, Olivia Hernandez, Brett Ryback and Rodney Ingram during rehearsals of Bay Street Theater's upcoming production of Terrence McNally's "Master Class." COURTESY BAY STREET THEATER

Vicki Lewis JENNY ANDERSON

Vicki Lewis JENNY ANDERSON

Brett Ryback as the accompanist Manny Weinstock and Vicki Lewis as Maria Callas in

Brett Ryback as the accompanist Manny Weinstock and Vicki Lewis as Maria Callas in "Master Class" at Bay Street Theater. LENNY STUCKER

Rodney Ingram and Vicki Lewis in

Rodney Ingram and Vicki Lewis in "Master Class" at Bay Street Theater. LENNY STUCKER

authorAnnette Hinkle on Jun 22, 2024

This week, opera singer Maria Callas will get her close-up when Bay Street Theater opens the second show of its mainstage season, Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning 1995 play “Master Class.” Directed by Lisa Peterson, this production stars Vicki Lewis as the fading diva who leads a brutal master class of aspiring opera students, all while reliving her own personal triumphs and tragedies.

Lewis, whose acting credits include “NewsRadio,” “Finding Nemo” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” comes to this production well prepared and with a firm grasp on the material, having just performed the same role for a March run of “Master Class” at the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson.

“I knew of ‘Master Class,’ but hadn’t seen it, so I came in blind,” Lewis said in a recent phone interview. “When I was asked to do it at the Arizona Theatre Company by Matt August, who runs it, I said, ‘Do you have the right person?’”

It turns out that, yes, in Vicki Lewis August had tapped the right person to play Maria Callas, a challenging role that is admittedly a bit outside of her normal comfort zone.

“I’m 64, I’ve done a lot of musicals, many of them more than three times,” Lewis said. “I love musicals, but I thought if someone is going to give me a chance to do this, I’m going to do it.

“It was one of those roles that fits. I was able to access a lot of things that had happened in my life,” she added. “That run was four months ago. So coming to Bay Street, I had the words, which gave me a head start.”

For her part, director Lisa Peterson comes to this production from a different angle, one in which she did not know a great deal about the play — or Maria Callas — in advance.

“I’d seen the Zoe Caldwell and the Tyne Daly productions, that’s all,” Peterson said in a recent interview. “This is a thing I love about doing theater — working on a play is a crash-course in some new subject. I’m learning a lot about Callas, and opera in general, by working on ‘Master Class.’”

Peterson added that she decided that in order to come to the material with a fresh eye, it was best not to see Lewis’s performance of the play in Arizona, which was directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge (who has helmed several productions for Bay Street Theater over the years).

“I’ve been a fan of Vicki’s for a long time, but I’m trying to focus on finding my own approach — and not having seen her previous performance makes that more possible,” Peterson said.

“Lisa has a very different take on it, which is great,” Lewis added. “Lisa is a meticulous script worker. She’s finding every thread within each word. It’s uncanny and challenging, and makes me a better actor.”

When asked about Maria Callas’s life story and what she has come to understand about it through this role, Lewis said, “I did learn a lot about Maria. It’s quite a sad tale. She was one of the great poker-face interviewers of all time.

“Underneath, she came in like a firestorm then they turned on her. The press was mean, audiences would throw things at her. Aristotle Onassis broke her heart and then married Jackie. I know she tried to commit suicide,” she added. “People said she was difficult, but she was just a perfectionist. The new kids on the block wouldn’t put the work in, and she wasn’t interested. You see the young students that come to her, she’s hard on them. In the play she’s becoming psychically broken and not doing well at all. The things presently in the play are setting off memories that are stuck in her brain and haunting her.”

Callas was, indeed, an extremely accomplished, but very complex character. Born to Greek immigrants in New York in 1923, her parents’ troubled marriage led her mother to return to Greece with Maria and her sister in 1937. In Athens, Callas received her foundational training as an opera singer and began performing, but a troubled and contentious relationship with her mother brought her back to New York in 1945 at the age of 22. There, she reconnected with her father and pursued her career as an opera singer. She became one the most renowned and influential opera singers of the 20th century, but difficulties with her voice and off stage dramas caused her career to be cut short. After retiring from performing in 1974, she withdrew from public life and in 1977, died of a heart attack at age 53 while living alone in Paris.

Embodying the role of Callas requires Lewis to do the heavy lifting in “Master Class.” Though the challenge of the role doesn’t require Lewis to sing, it does include mastering a snippet of multiple languages. As she began preparing for the Arizona production, Lewis admitted that doubts surfaced.

“It was a tightrope walk. In the beginning, I was sending up flares, I can’t do it and I hate this,” Lewis said. “I was so afraid, and I worked with a dialect coach — the Italian and French, I learned the Greek, all of that. I found her accent an accumulation of all the different languages she spoke. There was also a bit of a pretentious, mid-Atlantic thing.

“I didn’t think I could pull this off,” she added. “For the first few days I was going to pay to get out of it. But once you get on top of it, it’s a glorious thing to do. It’s so well written and has so many different turns. It takes a lot to do this role. You need to be a woman who can take that kind of beating. She’s vibrant, beautiful and a still somewhat sexy, vibrant human.

Rounding out the cast as the young singing students in the Bay Street production are Stella Kim, Olivia Hernandez, Rodney Ingram and Brett Ryback, who offer the operatic musical support of the play on stage.

“The others are so cute — they’re so young, but when they sing, they’re glorious,” Lewis said.

“Master Class” represents Peterson’s second directorial project for Bay Street Theater. In 2010, she directed David Mamet’s “Romance” for the theater, but this is her first-ever experience directing a play by Terence McNally, who lived on the East End for many years and died of complications from COVID-19 in March 2020.

“I’ve always loved watching McNally plays, but never had the chance to work on one till now,” Peterson said. “First, I’m really appreciating his comic gifts. All the humor comes from the characters he builds, but it is sharp and impressive — super witty. And then it’s fun to learn how he writes spoken arias that are so emotionally and poetically structured that they work like music. His rhythms can make our hearts swoon.”

Preview performances of “Master Class” begin June 25, with a red carpet opening on Saturday, June 29. Performances continue through Sunday, July 21, with matinees on Wednesdays and Sundays and talkbacks on Tuesdays.

Single-seat tickets are $50 at baystreet.org, 631-725-9500 or at the theater box office on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor.

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