Lady Good Diva

Exuding a diva's aura, Dunaway takes full possession of her role, and soon we are listening only to Callas. Pacing the set in a black designer pantsuit and silk scarf, she peppers her vocal instruction to three consecutive pupils with references to career highs and sardonic asides about opera-house rivals, stopping just short of complete revelation with a tantalizing "but that's another story, this is not about me." Her reveries, however, do not end soon enough to suit her hapless first pupil. Sophie (nicely played by Melinda Klump), a plump soprano, never gets the chance to sing, as her famous teacher repeatedly stomps on her first notes with advice illustrated through career anecdotes. Giggling with terror and anxious to please, Klump's Sophie ably reinforces the fact that we are in the presence of greatness.

The next "victim," as Callas refers to her pupils, is Sharon (Suzan Hanson). Fleeing the stage to throw up moments after her arrival, Sharon returns to sing her aria and speak her mind by questioning Callas's objectivity. In a role that won her Broadway predecessor a Tony, Hanson sings Verdi's Lady Macbeth with passion, but she's less convincing in her denunciation of Callas as a jealous has-been.

The classroom conceit really jells when Callas calls upon, in her description, "Mr. Tight Pants Tenor" Tony (Kevin Paul Anderson). Tony is every conceited tenor, preening with overconfidence yet radiating a young artist's hunger for success and maintaining the desperate hope that Callas's instruction might give him some advantage. Called upon to portray the best of the students, Anderson sweetly sings Puccini's "Recondita armonia" from Tosca, transporting not only Callas but the audience as well. Both Gary Green, as Callas's accompanist Manny, and Scott Davidson, as the stagehand who fetches the diva's footstool and cushion, add a humanizing light touch to the proceedings.

But this is Dunaway's show. The actress vetoed the wig and nosepiece originally suggested for a realistic portrayal of Callas, and, indeed, a physical re-creation is unnecessary: Dunaway's hold on Callas's personality -- and the audience's attention -- never wavers, even though she is on-stage nearly every one of the play's two hours and 25 minutes. One moment she is slipping into the guttural tones of Onassis berating his "canary's" devotion to her art; the next she is a shattered Callas, devastated by the abortion she underwent for Onassis and her career.

This dramatic sleight of hand succeeds not only because of Dunaway's multifaceted performance, but also thanks to the skills of the same team that created the original Broadway production. In the highly theatrical ending to the first act, Michael McGarty's starkly elegant off-white columned rehearsal hall is magically converted -- via Brian MacDevitt's lighting and projections -- into the grand opera house La Scala. And as John Gottlieb's marvelously integrated sound design brings up Callas's 1957 performance in La Sonnambula, the singer becomes transfixed by her remembered triumph, paralleling that opera's sleepwalking title character. Additionally, by highlighting the consuming passion of Callas and her students, director Leonard Foglia never allows the vocal lessons to descend into an academic discourse.

Dunaway's embodiment of Callas is only her most recent accomplishment; her resume also includes Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde (Oscar nomination), Marilyn Monroe in After the Fall, and Joan Crawford in the high camp Mommie Dearest. Noteworthy too were her appearances in Network (for which she won an Oscar), Chinatown (Oscar nomination), Little Big Man, Hurry Sundown, Don Juan DeMarco, and Barfly; and she won an Emmy for a role on television's Columbo: It's All in the Game. Labeled with the film-industry epithet of "difficult" because of her perfectionist tendencies, she has also gained notoriety for her romantic relationships with counterculture comedian Lenny Bruce and screen heartthrob Marcello Mastroianni, plus her marriages to rock musician Peter Wolf and celebrity photographer Terry O'Neill.

Dunaway is a natural for McNally's ode to love, art, and obsession. Don't be intimidated by the operatic jargon; Master Class is not a boring vocal lesson any more than A Chorus Line is a dance audition. On the other hand, if you caught Area Stage's The Lisbon Traviata or the numerous local productions of previous McNally works -- Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; A Perfect Ganesha; and Love! Valour! Compassion! -- then you may be surprised at his latest. Unlike his panoramic renderings of modern relationships that move us with emotion, Master Class exhilarates us with theatricality. Next year Dunaway will produce and star in the movie version of Master Class. See it for the first time on the stage, an arena that Callas ruled and one that Dunaway electrifies.

Master Class.
Written by Terrence McNally; directed by Leonard Foglia; with Faye Dunaway, Kevin Paul Anderson, Gary Green, Suzan Hanson, and Melinda Klump. Through April 13. For information call 954-764-0700 or see "Calendar Listings.

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