Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Masterful 'Master Class' Brightens the Post-Tony Season

Tyne Daly.  Photo by Joan Marcus

Normally, the weeks following the Tony Awards are a down time for new productions on Broadway, a space in which to catch up with shows you haven’t gotten around to as yet or to make a return visit to ones you’ve already seen.

So how amazing is it that we are being gifted this summer with not just one, but with two likely candidates for Tony nominations for 2011-2112—one for best revival of a play, the other for best revival of a musical!

I speak of the masterful production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class, now in previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, and the forthcoming production of the iconic Stephen Sondheim musical, Follies, set to open later this summer at the Marquis. Both of these are arriving in New York after successful runs at the Kennedy Center.

It is too soon to say much about Follies, especially since casting has yet to be solidified, but I do want to sing the praises of whomever it was who decided to give New York theatergoers the opportunity to see and hear it performed with a full 28-member orchestra and with Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations. No tuba-totin’ Sally in this production!

Meanwhile, there is Master Class, starring the über-talented Tyne Daly as the operatic über-diva Maria Callas in McNally’s Tony-winning play, which he based on a series of actual master classes that Callas conducted for opera students at Juilliard in the 1970s (closing in on the end of her life, as it happens, lending the play some extra poignancy.)

On the face of it, Ms. Daly is not an obvious choice to play the role of the famous—some would say infamous—jet-setting, self-promoting, and, at least as depicted in Master Class, well-past-her-singing-prime soprano.

“I’m not glamorous, I don’t have a look, I don’t know anything about opera, I have no Italian, and I’m too old,” Ms. Daly is quoted as saying of herself in a recent New York Times Magazine profile.

Assuming all of these things not to be merely a matter of false modesty, then it must have taken a lot of mut (German for “courage” or “guts,” a word the character of Callas—who certainly had a lot of mut herself—says is the only thing German she is partial to) for Ms. Daly to take on the role.

The pants suit and scarf created for her by Martin Pakledinaz and the wig by Paul Huntley take care of the glamor; wonderful acting takes care of the rest.

When the original production of Master Class opened on Broadway in 1995, it won a ton of praise for its star Zoe Caldwell as well as for the then 25-year-old Audra McDonald as one of the young students who face Callas’s critical review of their singing. That production ran for just shy of 600 performances, with Patti LuPone (and later, Dixie Carter) stepping into the lead role after Caldwell's departure.  It was Ms. LuPone whom I saw in the role, and what I recall is a Maria Callas with a load of arrogance, a vicious tongue, and a dismissive attitude toward the young and vulnerable vocal students who paraded before her.

Ms. Daly’s take is far different and rather more complex.  For one thing, her Callas has a real sense of humor--laced with sarcasm, yes, but a gentle sarcasm that is actually quite funny.

When she speaks of Joan Sutherland, for instance, she pauses as if trying to find a way to be kind, before finally settling on “she did her best.”  

That line, and similar put-downs, would have been delivered by Ms. LuPone as if she truly meant them to stab; instead Ms. Daly gives us an experienced crowd-pleaser who knows how to play to a gathering of admirers.

Indeed, the early lines of the play are directed straight to the audience, as if we were actually there to observe these master classes. We’re told, for example, that we have no “look,” and that if we are unable to hear everything she has to say, “it’s your fault; you’re not concentrating.” Again, as you might imagine, these lines could be delivered as if spewed forth by a harridan.

But Ms. Daly’s Callas is no Nazi bitch from hell; rather she is audience-savvy, intelligent, and insightful about her craft.  And—despite her occasional lapses into reverie and at least one moment where she forgets to contract her claws—she provides what sounds to this amateur opera-goer to be good advice to the students.

By the way, the three students, played by Sierra Boggess, Alexandra Silber, and Garrett Sorenson, are wonderfully cast and—to the extent we are allowed to hear them sing without interruption—have lovely voices.  Jeremy Cohen as the accompanist Manny and Clinton Brandhagen as the unimpressed stagehand also do excellent work. It is a pleasure to see an entire company of actors so in sync.  

Bravo as well to director Stephen Wadsworth and to scenic designer Thomas Lynch, who makes us feel as though we were in a studio or small auditorium where a real master class would be taking place.

I’d be remiss if I were to suggest that Master Class is utter perfection. It could use some editing, and surely little would be lost if the near schizophrenic “conversations” Callas has with Aristotle Onassis, the long-time lover who discarded her for the even more glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy, were to be excised. I wonder, too, about Ms. Daly’s shifting accent (vaguely Greco-Roman, mixed with traces of German), but all in all, this is a splendid production that should garner at least a couple of Tony nominations (revival of a play, leading actress) when the time comes.

A masterful kickoff to the new theater year!

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

No comments:

Post a Comment