Master Class is a masterful production in Naugatuck in large part due to the incredible performance of Marilyn Olsen as the operatic legend, Maria Callas. Olsen is outstanding in the role and sets a strong benchmark for theatrical performances for the rest of the year. She is funny, abrasive, commanding and tragic. Olsen is an accomplished singer in her own right which gives her credibility as the famed opera singer. Callas is a larger than life figure and under Lucia Dressel’s direction, Olsen is given the opportunity to explore the range of emotions of a diva whose career, like Icarus, rose swiftly and beautifully only to reach too close to a villainous sun.
The intimate setting of the 60 seat theater in Naugatuck lends itself perfectly to a “Master Class”. Members of the audience are students who Callas talks “to” and “down to” and, during pivotal scenes, becomes Callas’ confidante when she lets slip the veil of the artistic icon. There is nothing so tragic as seeing one’s heroes crushed by the frailty of their own humanity as the script by award winning playwright proves in abundance.
Although I would ultimately consider Master Class a drama, the play is laugh out loud funny through most of the scenes. Maria Callas is witty and takes no prisoners in her criticism. Whether it’s Agnes Dann, the real stage manager of the show who plays the stage manager for the “class”, to John Dressel who portrays Emmanuel the accompanist during the class, all who have to interact with Callas do so at their own peril and yet most benefit from the experience. As Callas says in the play, no one called Callas’ singing or her attitude “charming” yet despite the abrasive nature of how Callas communicates, the interesting dynamic in the play is how singers improve with each instruction from the master teacher, no doubt a purposeful result of the expert direction of Lucia Dressel’s direction.
John Dressel’s Emmanuel is a calming influence at the piano and he plays the role with subtlety and charm, two character traits that elude Callas. The character is in awe of the firebrand instructor and his quiet, gentle performance is the perfect counterweight to the indomitable instructor. Dressel provides beautiful accompaniment which gives the production an added sense of credulity that this is indeed a real master class.
Sybil Chamberlain is an absolute joy to watch on stage. She carries the sweet and somewhat innocent persona of “Sharon”, a singer taking the master class, with sincerity and heart. Chamberlain most recently portrayed Lenny in Backyard Theater Ensemble’s production of Crimes of the Heart and like Lenny, Chamberlain’s Sharon can be meek and easily intimidated but can explode with fury when pushed to a breaking point.
Mike Schick provides nuance to his role as Anthony, a tenor whose song choice moves the teacher in surprising ways. Schick was recently in Landmark Community Theater’s production of Buddy Holly in the ensemble but in Master Class he brings his musical talents to center stage.
Debbie Goodman brings the laughter as Sophie, the first aspirant to grace the stage. Goodman’s comedic timing is spot on as a young singer whose sheltered life has never brought life lessons that Callas had to learn the hard way. Goodman recently performed at the Warner Theatre’s Playwrights Festival and will be part of “Abridged” the improv-group at the Phoenix Stage Company this year.
It should be noted that Chamberlain, Schick and Goodman are all enormously talented singers and hit the high notes as any aspiring opera singer would when singing for an operatic legend.
Ultimately, the story can be viewed from the perspective that the creation of art, real art, takes an enormous personal toll on an artist because they are trying to bare their souls for the world to see with sometimes only applause as their recompense. There are always reasons why an artist can be driven to create art but in that reason can also also lie the foundation for their personal downfalls. Sometimes the spark of creative fire burns too brightly for even the possessor of that energy to hold but as Callas says, other singers would rather sing like Callas for one year than sing like anyone else for ten.
There is only one weekend opportunity to enjoy the production. The show will run:
Friday, January 16, 2015 at 8:00pm
Saturday, January 17, 2015 at 8:00pm
Sunday, January 18, 2015 at 2:00pm
It should also be noted that availability for seating is now considered “limited” for Friday’s show. Buy your tickets in advance to ensure you can get seats. Based on the fact that this is one weekend only and word of mouth will spread quickly, it would not surprise me if the shows sold out so again, if this intrigues you, call and buy the tickets in advance.
At the end of the performance and the standing ovation, I sat in my chair, trying to process it all and I overheard someone in the seats across from me simply say, “Wow.” If I had to take Naugatuck’s Phoenix Stage Company’s production of Master Class starring Marilyn Olsen as Maria Callas and summarize it in just one word, that’s the one I’d use.