Bio Rhythms

A pair of famous dead singers was resuscitated here last week. Mahalia Jackson and Maria Callas are each pacing local stages -- Jackson in Black Theatre Troupe's Mahalia; Callas in Arizona Theatre Company's Master Class -- talking directly to capacity audiences about their very different lives.

The productions that present them are equally disparate: Where one succeeds on the merits of its lead performer, the other soars as a rare example of faultless theater. One takes place on a grand stage, the other in a renovated hall in a shabby neighborhood.

These settings couldn't be more perfect: A story about the consummate diva of the second half of this century, teaching an arena-style opera class, couldn't be better placed than on the Herberger's center stage. And the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, where Mahalia plays, has the feel of a revival house, complete -- at the crowded Sunday matinee I attended, at least -- with old women fanning themselves with their programs and exultant howls of "Amen!" from the audience.

Most of that shouting was in response to Phobie Davis' eerily accurate performance in the title role. Davis, who bears a striking resemblance to Jackson, presents not an impersonation but a full-bodied characterization, distracted by emotion and informed by a rafter-shaking voice. Her Mahalia strides the stage, talking to God and recounting, between spirituals, the facts of her pious life.

Frankly, there isn't much to tell. Unlike Callas -- or most any other diva whose career hit these heights -- there were no great tragedies in Jackson's life; no illegitimate children, no disruptive romances gone awry. Jackson had more to do with defining contemporary gospel music than any singer before or after, but her life was largely untroubled. She traveled the country, sang gospel music, contributed a good part of her vast fortune to civil rights causes, and quietly died in 1972.

Playwright Tom Stolz would have done better to skip much of the yarn-spinning and focus instead on Jackson's singing, but the temptation to reveal the woman behind the music prevailed, and the result is a lot of talking that tells us almost nothing about the woman we've come to hear about. She sang for four American presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson), and two of her earliest recordings, "God Shall Wipe All Tears Away" and "Keep Me Every Day," marked the introduction of the organ into commercial gospel music. But these facts go unmentioned, and the mostly pointless stories between songs had me wishing that Jackson were turning the pages of her memoirs a little faster.

The author's failed biography is forgotten as soon as Davis eases into another of Jackson's better-known spirituals, singing with all the emotion and depth that Mahalia's story lacks. And if the production is less than perfect, with cheerless supporting performances all around, it helps to know that director David Hemphill had plenty to overcome. The actress for whom this property was originally optioned left the show in the 11th hour.

Davis, who recently created the role in New York, stepped in to fill Mahalia's giant shoes just days before the curtain came up. There's nothing on this stage as zestfully entertaining as Davis' performance, a rich, satisfying achievement that obliterates the uninspired story it supports.

The Maria Callas that Gordana Rashovich brings to life in Terrence McNally's Master Class is no less captivating. She flatters, coaxes and lectures her students; rails against a world that wronged her; weeps over lost love. In talking about her life, she often becomes lost in the bleak memories that provide the high points of Rashovich's gaudy, captivating performance.

Master Class, winner of the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play, takes place in the early '70s, during the years after Callas stopped performing in opera in 1965 and before her death in 1977. It is the first day of a master class for aspiring artists that Callas is teaching in a concert hall at the Juilliard School of Music. We, the audience, are the students; Callas often speaks directly to us, when she isn't berating one of a trio of students or recalling, trancelike, her fractured private life and brilliant career.

The Callas that Terrence McNally imagines is alternately bitchy and tender, swinging from long, detailed stories about herself to tirades against those who may have come to gawk, because she's not "there to talk about myself." He's taken the legendary Callas of grand opera and rebuilt her as a woman. As she recalls her life, she provides some insight into what drives a person to transform herself from an overweight hopeful into a superstar.

But McNally also delivers the diva we've come for, full of fire and music, an arrogant soloist who disdains tenors and who tells us that singing and speaking are a lost art. "People are forgetting how to listen," she says. "If you can't hear me, it's your fault. You're not concentrating."

Some of her bitchy asides are pure camp: She refers to Joan Sutherland as "a 12-foot-tall Lucia di Lammermoor." ("What could she do? Stoop?") and refers to her colleagues as "enemies."

The high point of the production, gracefully directed by Bruce K. Sevy, comes when Callas, enraptured by her own memories, draws her past onto the stage. One minute she's listening to a student singing an aria, the next moment -- with the help of Vicki Smith's smartly designed scrims and Rick Paulsen's expert lighting -- the concert hall falls away and we are in an opera house, reliving with Callas the moment when she originated the same aria years before. In another, similar scene, Callas recalls her broken romance with Greek multimillionaire Aristotle Onassis, who dumped her in favor of Jacqueline Kennedy -- a solo monologue so wonderfully interpreted by Rashovich that Onassis becomes almost real, another player on the stage.

There are other actors on stage with her from time to time, each of them an accomplished singer who turns in a fine performance. But Rashovich, using every powerful means available to a theater artist, keeps us so enraptured that she might well be performing solo.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela