“Never miss an opportunity to theatricalise”
The obvious place to start with this review of Terrence McNally’s play Master Class is to take note of the fact that following Sharon Gless’ turn in A Round-Heeled Woman, it is now Tyne Daly’s turn as she reprises her Broadway performance as Maria Callas here. But even as it now means that I’ve seen both Cagney and Lacey on the stage, I have never actually seen an episode of Cagney and Lacey! A Round-Heeled Woman has now finished but as Master Class starts up its limited run at the Vaudeville Theatre (this was a preview), I have no hesitations in totally recommending booking for this fabulous show.
Initial signs were not encouraging as Daly’s first arrival on stage was met with rapturous applause, a personal bugbear but something more is going on as the fourth wall was immediately dismantled and it becomes apparent that we in the audience are actually playing a part in the show. Based on a series of master classes that renowned opera singer Maria Callas actually held at Julliard in the 1970s, we see three students present their efforts for deconstruction by the great diva and by golly does she deconstruct. And we are acknowledged as the audience watching the master class, Callas jokes with us, hectors and exhorts us to embrace her every word and generally folds us into proceedings in the most engaging of manners.
In what emerges as something of a one-woman show, Tyne Daly is just magnificent: imposingly statuesque, almost regal in her bearing in her black trouser suit and Hermès scarf, yet believably fallible as we come to see the price she has paid for her art and what she demands of her students if they are to become what she considers great artists. Daly is exceptional in the classes themselves as McNally focuses on what it was that made Callas so supremely talented as she created fully rounded characters to accompany the singing and thereby produced great drama as well as dramatic singing. As she tears apart her students’ efforts with witheringly harsh critiques and then putting them back together in her style and with her strident guidance, we’re left in no doubt as to just how important this is to her (having prematurely lost her voice).
Given how revelatory these scenes are, it almost seems a shame that McNally had to insert flashbacks into the play as well as she gets lost in a reverie as her charges sing – she recollects her insecurities, her uneasy relationships with her family, her tumultuous affair with Aristotle Onassis, the competitiveness of her rival singers, all these aspects combining to make the woman she has become. Again Daly is fantastic but in the hands of a lesser actress, one could see these scenes flagging dangerously. However she brims with character throughout, whether dispensing fashion advice to get ‘a look’, swaggering around as the shipping magnate or getting heartbreakingly lost in the music as a singer demonstrates the passion she demands.
The support around Daly’s Callas is well judged. Dianne Pilkington, Garrett Sorenson and Naomi O’Connell make a strong set of students: Pilkington garners enormous empathy, Sorenson sings like a dream and making her acting debut, opera singer O’Connell is in blistering form as Sharon, who seriously locks horns with her teacher as a wilful young singer who is far from beholden to La Divina. Jeremy Cohen’s adoring pianist Manny is as cute as a button and Gerard Carey’s unimpressed stagehand is hilarious.
Talking about the show afterwards, an easy connection to make is with the Judy Garland play/musical End of the Rainbow. But where that harnessed a truly sensational performance from Tracie Bennett to a play of variable merit, Stephen Wadsworth’s production is able to draw out more from McNally’s play to create a more rounded piece of theatrical entertainment. If End of the Rainbow was a three star play with a five star leading performance, Master Class would be a four star play with Tyne Daly undoubtedly getting five stars.