If the Whingers were writing nine word reviews (dream on) then an overheard from a precise elderly gentleman at the interval of Master Class might suffice; “She was a bit of a diva wasn’t she?” Quite.
The Whingers found no challenge camouflaging themselves amongst the throng of gentlemen d’un certain âge cramming this Broadway transfer at the Vaudeville Theatre where further eavesdropping supplied wistful reminisces like “Well, I saw Sutherland, but I never saw Callas.”
Yet even if we superficially blended into this expensively fragrant crowd (Andrew sporting a cravat, Phil’s pashmina insouciantly thrown over his shoulder), cheap aftershave the only giveaway to our lack of class and money, the Whingers just aren’t the sort of chaps who do opera. Like Maria Callas it’s all Greek to us. Our loss no doubt. If Terrence McNally‘s hugely enjoyable entertainment (director Stephen Wadsworth) doesn’t convert us little will.
With the second star of Cagney and Lacey gracing the West End in a matter of months, Tyne Daly takes on the role of Maria Callas presiding over one of her Juilliard School opera master classes a few years before her early death (aged 53) when her legendary singing voice had all but gone.
What we see is Callas’ Ofsted unapproved teaching methods; which in McNally’s version of events consisted of berating her “victims”/students, teaching them not necessarily how to sing but how to be an artiste and how to feel the music, how not to walk on stage but how to make an entrance, how to have ‘a look’ and as the elderly gentleman so correctly stated, how to be a diva.
The Whingers would have taken copious notes on the last three but we didn’t dare. We were in the front row (day seats £15*) the same place Phil sat when he saw Pattie LuPone take on the role years ago. On that occasion he became one of LuPone’s victims, so beware if you sit near the front, the same may happen to you if you are on the receiving end of one of Daly/Callas’ scary looks-that-chill from her heavily made up eyes. Despite Callas screaming at her students to have a pencil and take notes, one look from her would definitely have shrivelled the lead in our pencils. Terrifying. If this were a courtroom imagine how Harry Redknapp might react.
With impressive wiggery (Paul Huntley, who appears to have tressed everyone from Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich and Vivien Leigh to Mae West) Daly still doesn’t really look anything like Callas, though it matters not a jot, her presence is such that it’s impossible not to believe you’re watching a diva (and Andrew has considerable experience in such company). Daly’s Callas takes no prisoners, cuts other operatic legends down to size and switches magnificently between adjectives: fierce, formidable, impatient, playful, egotistical, hilarious and mesmerising throughout. Though never ever offer to lend her a tenor.
Even when Daly is left alone on the stage cruelly required to emote to recordings of Callas herself and fill in some biographical snippets she navigates successfully some tricky passages including where she has to act both sides of a conversation, including one with her lover Aristotle Onassis, without it feeling embarrassing.
We are occasionally allowed to take our eyes off her to appreciate the surrounding cast who are all allowed their brief moments: Jeremy Cohen as her amiably besotted pianist and her students played by Naomi O’Connell, Garrett Sorenson and Dianne Pilkington who produce impressively the requisite operatic noises (to our untutored ears); in the case of the latter, a voice and enough tears to warrant sticking her in the fly-tower of the Palace Theatre’s Singin’ in the Rain.
But this remains Daly’s show which is at its best when she’s interacting hilariously with her accompanist and pupils. Daly’s comedic skills are second to none – she can elicit laughter with a word, a pause, a glance or by simply leaving the stage and she seizes every opportunity afforded by McNally’s writing. Having spent the evening chiding her students to “listen to the music because everything you need is there.” she dismisses a passage of Verdi’s Macbeth with the words, “The music is ridiculous here. Ignore it.”
It is such a remarkable crowd-pleasing tour de force it’s a surprise to discover an understudy credited in the programme. One can only sympathise with poor Deborah Blake if Daly ever pulls a diva-ish sickie.
*Special thanks to the kind man who let Phil wait in the foyer before opening up the box office. It was so cold outside you could have swung a hammock between his nipples. Though why you should want to is anyone’s guess.
Despite ovating Phil still couldn’t help thinking of this though.