Terrence McNally may have written "Master Class" for Zoe Caldwell, but Faye Dunaway claims it as her own in this gleaming, impeccably produced touring production of the Broadway hit. The Oscar-winning actress delivers a full-size bravura characterization of Maria Callas that has "diva" written all over it.

Terrence McNally may have written “Master Class” for Zoe Caldwell, but Faye Dunaway claims it as her own in this gleaming, impeccably produced touring production of the Broadway hit. The Oscar-winning actress delivers a full-size bravura characterization of Maria Callas that has “diva” written all over it.

Dunaway’s performance style is quite different from Caldwell’s, upfront confrontational rather than slyly seductive. And it mines every possible laugh in McNally’s cleverly contrived star vehicle. Audiences all over the country will be getting more than their money’s worth with this national touring company.

A pencil-slim Dunaway, dressed in Callas’ trademark black Chanel pantsuit, has the play and audience in the palm of her hand from her first stage-center entrance. She never lets go, readily riding over one or two line mishaps as if they were part of the performance. At the Boston opening, following a week of previews, Dunaway’s Callas may not have been as multifaceted as Caldwell’s, but the actress might well develop further subtleties as the tour continues. Whether she does or not, she’s already delivering the goods right now.

To begin with, she looks like the mature, dieted Callas. She has the vocal inflections and physical tics down pat. And she has a fine time enacting Callas’ former love, a vulgar, coarse-voiced Ari Onassis, as the diva’s mind drifts into the past.

As designed by Michael McGarty, the pristine off-white stage on which Callas delivers her master class fits seamlessly into the Wilbur Theater. And the magical moment when the stage and much of the Wilbur’s interior is transformed, via a color projection, into the La Scala Opera House is as thrilling as ever.

Leonard Foglia has directed this touring cast with as much care as he mounted the Broadway production. And his supporting cast is splendid. As Callas’ piano accompanist, Gary Green not only plays Bellini, Verdi and Puccini, but acts his role with humor. As La Divina’s first student victim, Melinda Klump is all vulnerability. But we’ll never know whether she can sing, since Callas barely gives her the chance.

Suzan Hanson is the second student. She may not take the full dramatic measure of the scene in which she denounces Callas, but she more than makes up for that with her thrilling, full-voiced singing of Lady Macbeth. Kevin Paul Anderson’s tight-pants tenor is as happily good-looking and full of himself as needs to be, ultimately delivering a truly beautiful “Tosca” aria.

All told, “Master Class” is a first-rate touring production and a fine opener for Jon Platt’s new presidency of the Wilbur Theater. Platt, whose American Artists company is presenting the production in Boston, also owns the “Master Class” film rights, and intends to cast Dunaway in the lead a fine choice, based on her performance here.

Master Class

Wilbur Theater; 1,211 seats; $ 62.50 top

Production

A Jon B. Platt presentation of the Robert Whitehead, Lewis Allen and Spring Sirkin production of a play in two acts by Terrence McNally. Directed by Leonard Foglia.

Creative

Set, Michael McGarty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Jon Gottlieb; production stage manager, Patrick Ballard. Opened, reviewed Nov. 12, 1996. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Faye Dunaway (Maria Callas), Gary Green (Manny), Melinda Klump (Sophie), Scott Davidson (Stagehand), Suzan Hanson (Sharon), Kevin Paul Anderson (Tony).
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