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Review Round-up: Tyne Daly transfers McNally's Master Class

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The West End transfer of Terrence McNally’s 1995 Broadway play Master Class opened last night (7 February 2012, previews from 21 January) at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Tyne Daly, star of Cagney & Lacey, leads the production as opera legend Maria Callas and gives a master class to opera singers Naomi O'Connell, Dianne Pilkington and Garrett Sorenson. They are accompanied by Jeremy Cohen as Emmanuel Weinstock with Gerard Carey as the Stagehand.

Master Class, which is based on the classes Callas gave in the early 1970s at the Juilliard School in New York, is directed by Stephen Wadsworth. The production continues its limited West End season until 28 April 2012.

Michael Coveney

“Daly here confirms… what she proved many moons ago ... She’s a real, and considerable, stage actress. She’s marvellous, in fact, as Callas… acting probably her greatest role, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, through her tutorial … She, and we, are even more rewarded by the turnarounds in Naomi O'Connell’s tremendous performance… and by man mountain tenor Garrett Sorenson’s tumultuous lyrical eruption as Cavaradossi … The major weakness in Stephen Wadsworth’s production is the way she has to belt through her offstage fall-outs with her ancient husband… while battling against her own recordings … These scenes, designed by Thomas Lynch, are shadowy lit interludes at La Scala, which magically invades the functional Juilliard lecture hall … The 'set-up' of the master class is tediously and self-consciously done … But there are moments, too, when Daly, undercutting the pretence that the show is not about her… grumbles threateningly under her own lines… and, yes, send a thrill of delight pulsing through your veins.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

“I don’t think anyone could claim that… Master Class is a great play. It’s sentimental, full of dramatic and verbal clichés … Yet there is no denying that it offers a guiltily enjoyable night at the theatre … The main attraction is Tyne Daly … She offers one of those high-definition Broadway star performances that deftly mingle comedy and pathos … Her Callas takes to the stage as though it was her personal fiefdom … The result is mesmerising and often wonderfully funny … Callas is the egocentric diva of popular legend, glorying in her own myth… and taking sadistic delight in insulting her terrified pupils … And she is superb in the scenes in which she circles the young singers like a sleek panther keeping a watchful eye on its lunch … There is strong support in Stephen Wadsworth’s slick Broadway production from Garrett Sorenson… whose voice moves even the hypercritical Callas, and Naomi O'Connell and Dianne Pilkington as the terrified female students … This may be a flawed and even dishonest play, but it is a highly entertaining one, and Tyne Daly richly deserves her standing ovation.”

Paul Taylor

“The debased, cliche-ridden version of Callas… has as much in common with Dame Edna as with the great artist which this 'event' or 'entertainment'… travesties … Tyne Daly is astonishingly good at what she is asked to do for this show … She has as much "presence" as the Grand Canyon … McNally's trite idea is to present Callas as Quintessence of Diva … In Stephen Wadsworth's slick production, Daly times the airy, throwaway put-downs and the mock-puzzled 'bitchy, moi?' double takes to perfection. And she is able, simply through charged statuesque gesture, to suggest the singing genius that we hear on scratchy recordings of Callas in some of her great roles. There is one electrifying sequence where the diva's taunts goad a young soprano into a thrilling retaliatory rendering of an aria by Verdi's Lady Macbeth and as the pair orbit each other, you see how the psychodynamic of the master class relationship could be tacked non-naturalistically. In general, though, you learn more about the nature of teaching and passing on a gift in Dirty Dancing.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"A magisterial and classy performance from Tyne Daly … Prepare to be dazzled … Daly is imperious and sometimes woundingly funny as this queenly, flawed, swaggering artist … McNally's play is less majestic. It's a clever yet rather vulgar and overly sentimental homage to the great diva … Callas apart, the characters are much too thinly drawn. But it works as a star vehicle … With a succession of hopeful, nervous students … You don't need to be familiar with the numerous ins and outs of Callas's career to appreciate the pathos … We hear Callas's generous, incisive tones. It is the voice of the original recordings; Daly barely has to sing at all, yet we are convinced that somewhere inside her the ashes of a once blazing talent continue to smoulder. Full of little interactions with the audience and moments we're expected to answer with applause, Master Class is the most knowing, bombastic kind of Broadway show. But, crucially, Stephen Wadsworth's production gives Daly room to captivate, and she consistently does just that."

Michael Billington

“Even if Tyne Daly's performance far surpasses the one we saw from Patti LuPone in 1997, the play still offers a caricature of what we know of the real Callas … McNally presents us with… a monomaniac diva … I'm surprised that McNally… should now turn her into a parodic sacred monster. Her observations about art are generally trite… one is more stunned by the apercu's vulgarity than its accuracy. And, although McNally seeks to evoke the sadness of Callas's private life, it strikes me as a cardinal sin to use authentic recordings of her singing as background to a severe attack of the flashbacks … Against the odds, Daly gives the evening the touch of class that McNally's script lacks … It's only fair to add that Garrett Sorenson and Naomi O'Connell, as two of Callas's victims, deliver their respective arias with real passion, and that Stephen Wadsworth has staged the piece with elegant simplicity … I only wish we could have seen Daly's famous performance as Rose in Sondheim's Gypsy, which must have been a match for her formidable talents.”

Libby Purves
The Times

“Great artists in decline make gripping drama and, let’s face it, butts for unkind mirth. Every chance for both is seized with riveting energy by Tyne Daly … What McNally is doing, and Stephen Wadsworth directing in this fine production from Broadway, is using her chequered life and passionate musicality to explore general truths … Jeremy Cohen at the piano offers a lovely understated set of facial expressions, and Gerard Carey as a gum-chewing, casual stagehand neatly represents the outside world … Jolts of real operatic passion surface whenever the music carries Callas through fictional emotion into real remembered griefs ... Naomi O'Connell does a spectacular Lady Macbeth, hurling it virtually through gritted teeth as Callas torments her; and the classroom fades again into black-and-golden memory as Daly passionately, brilliantly evokes triumph, paranoia, betrayals and regrets. Her last pupil just hates her for it. That’s life: the onward roll of the generations."

- Amy Sheppard


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