Connecticut ~ Review: "Master Class" at Phoenix Stage Company

by Nancy Sasso Janis, OnStage Critic The Phoenix Stage Company is presenting 'Master Class' this weekend. It is not your typical master class mind you, but the play 'Master Class' written by Terrence McNally ('Ragtime.') The Tony Award winning play is based upon the legendary series of master classes given by the opera diva Maria Callas at Juilliard.

So the diva herself, masterfully embodied by Marilyn Olsen, enters the stage to teach said master class in front of an audience, played by us, the packed opening night Phoenix Stage audience. An accompanist named Emmanuel Weinstock (played by the talented musician and relatively new actor John Dressel) is ready to do her bidding. Three "victims" have bravely lined up to perform for the diva, played by Deborah Goodman as Sophie De Palma, Leland M. Schick as Anthony Candolino and Sybil Haggard Chamberlin as Sharon Graham.

The premise reminded me of two other "a woman and her accompanist" productions. The first was Chip Deffaa's 'One Night with Fanny Brice' with the amazing Mary Cantoni Johnson in the leading role and TJ Thompson on the piano. I saw this wonderful show at the PSC before it went to New York. I also thought of Priscilla Squiers as Florence Foster Jenkins in Westport Community Theater's 'Souvenir.' Interestingly enough, Ms. Squiers has also played the lead in WCT's production of 'Master Class.'

Lucia Dressel has directed this cast so very thoughtfully and notes that "learning Italian, opera pieces and lengthy monologues is no easy undertaking and they have risen high above the task." The opera pieces were relatively incidental and take a back seat to the force that is Maria Callas. She dishes about her career in the opera world. As the victims sing, she goes into a sprawling interior monologue about one of her own performances and some heartbreaking experiences in her personal life. She literally and figuratively pulls back the curtain on the life of this opera legend, the details of which I found to be quite interesting.

Ms. Olsen has a long list of credits to her name but this might be her most brilliant. She truly embodies this larger-than-life figure in her appearance and performance. When Callas recalls her affair with Aristotle Onassis, this talented actress must play the roles of both the diva and Onassis in a dramatic conversation. It was spellbinding to watch. She is glamorous as she commands the stage (and the audience) and is so very funny. In the words of community theater vet Lyle Ressler, "Is there nothing this woman can't do?" The answer would be: apparently not.

Ms. Goodman does a fine job as Sophie, a ridiculous, overly-perky soprano. Mr. Schick sings in his beautiful tenor voice and the lovely Ms. Chamberlin professionally sings her opera piece and gives a wonderful performance as Sharon, the talented soprano, as well. PSC founding partner Agnes Dann has a fun cameo as the beleaguered stagehand while serving as the stage manager in real life.

The simple set did not overpower "La Divina" and the costumes by Ed Bassett, Ms. Dann and the cast were just enough. Ms. Dann also coordinated the props. Mr. Dressel's piano work was flawless.

The opening night audience was a virtual 'Who's Who' of Connecticut community theater. In attendance was a contingent from the Backyard Theater Ensemble, KC and Jonathan Ross, Amy Rebekah Derrick-Ulsh (Mother in 'Ragtime,') Holly McCann, Dianna Waller and James Wood, Kristen Jacobson, Michael Elser, Tom Sheehan, Jim and Kate Luurtsema, Jeff Savage, Beth Steinberg and some I have probably missed. The praise for this wonderful production was unanimous.

'Master Class' is scheduled for only two more performances. Opening night was sold out, but there are still some good sets left for Saturday and Sunday. Call the theater at 203-632-8546 to make your reservation.