Monday, July 11, 2011

Daly Does Callas

Boggess and Daly in Master Class (photo by Joan Marcus)
Master Class
Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by Stephen Wadsworth
Starring Tyne Daly, Sierra Boggess, Clinton Brandhagen, Jeremy Cohen, Alexandra Silber, Garrett Sorenson

Opened July 7; closes September 4, 2011
Friedman Theater, 252 West 47th Street

I was prepared to be disappointed by Tyne Daly’s Maria Callas in Master Class because in 1995 Terrence McNally’s play premiered on Broadway with Zoe Caldwell, followed by Patti Lupone, two legendary actresses giving unforgettable performances.

But as indelible as Caldwell and Lupone were, Tyne’s best stage appearance yet proves there’s room for other interpretations of the irascible, callous Callas. Her Mama Rose in Gypsy and the mother in Rabbit Hole didn’t prepare us for the wit, smarts and humor she brings to a true acting diva’s most diva-ish role.

Although the play is pretty flimsy, its clever construction and reliance on a powerhouse actress make for a diverting couple of hours. Callas, hosting a master class, puts three young singers through their paces and speaks to the nervous piano accompanist and a non-plussed union stagehand. But most of the play is taken up by Callas’ monologues, either talking directly to the audience or losing herself in reminiscences about her spotty track record, onstage and backstage, with the opera directors and other men in her life.

These monologues train a spotlight on the diva, and Daly runs with them, superbly aping Callas’ movement, aspect, accent and bearing, showcasing an irrepressible diva who’s past her peak. Along with director Stephen Wadsworth, an old pro at staging opera, Daly transforms McNally’s choppy flashbacks of Callas at La Scala or being berated by Ari Onassis into true showstoppers.

Although Daly dominates from the get-go, the other performers also shine. Sierra Boggess (the only one to survive the debacle that was The Little Mermaid), shows off a crystalline voice as Callas’ final singing “victim.” Clinton Brandhagen makes the tenor student a worthy adversary, Jeremy Cohen is sympathetic as the pianist and Alexandra Silber reins in the temptation to overplay the comic aspects of Callas’ first student. Rounding out the cast is Garrett Sorenson, who dryly caricatures a disinterested Teamster.

But Master Class is definitely Maria Callas’ story, and Daly memorably presents her as larger-than-life, warts (or calluses) and all.

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