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'Master Class' a look at a legend

From left, Paul Dorgan, Anne Cullimore Decker and Shane Haag perform in "Master Class."
From left, Paul Dorgan, Anne Cullimore Decker and Shane Haag perform in "Master Class."
Keith Johnson, Deseret News

"MASTER CLASS," through Nov. 8, Salt Lake Acting Company, 801-363-7522. Running time: two hours 15 minutes (one intermission).

The chapel theater at Salt Lake Acting Company, covered in gorgeous wood paneling, like the auditoriums in music schools, immediately sets the stage for an intimate evening of theater.

Accompanist Paul Dorgan sits at the piano, and we wait.

So begins "Master Class," playwright Terrence McNally's picture of Maria Callas, opera diva-turned-educator. The play uses excerpts from actual master classes taught by the singer at The Juilliard School after her career had ended, her voice not what it used to be.

The black curtain parts, and from the moment Anne Cullimore Decker graces the stage as Callas, it is nearly impossible to take your eyes off her. She is utterly captivating — truly a performance not to be missed.

The play is set up to feel like we, the audience, are students in one of her classes. When Callas taught, she was so popular that the public also filled the auditorium, standing room only.

Callas works with two sopranos (Natalie Blackman, Stefanie Londino) and a tenor (Shane Haag). Beyond coaching their techniques, she coaches them through their entrances, their exits, how they look, how they move.

The uncertainty of the students is a wonderful contrast to Decker's poise, presence and total command of the stage. Callas is biting, caustic, but also warm, funny and rather sad.

As she works, she gets lost in memories from her own glorious moments on the stage, as well as painful conversations from her past. These reveries are some of the best of the evening, completely riveting and heartfelt.

As a side note, for anyone who has performed, the play is filled with pieces of sage advice — on how to command your space, how to connect with the music and deliver the right message. The script should almost be required reading.

Keven Myhre's wooden set is gorgeous; Jim Craig's lighting does a lovely job of moving us from flashback to present; and Dave Evanoff's sound design helps bring the legend back to life.

"Master Class," directed by David Mong, is an interesting look at a legend whose brilliant career was cut short. But, beyond that, it's a marvelous look at an actress who completely encompasses the role and the material. Not only is it an absolute treat, it is a truly moving evening of live theater.

Sensitivity rating: strong language.