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A CurtainUp Review
Despite it's title (Amadeus means "Beloved by God"), this is less a biodrama about the life and times of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart than a melodrama about one man's determination to destroy another. Envy of Mozart's genius drive the mediocre but successful composer Antonio Salieri to a decade of spiteful acts. He destroys the man but not his music.
Mozart is dead at thirty-six, but Salieri lives to see his place assured among the immortals as he himself is reduced to being "the patron saint of mediocrity." The drama begins with Salieri as an old man in a wheelchair attended only by a valet and a cook ("one to keep me tidy and one to keep me full"). When he sheds his musty old robe and squeaky voice he is once again thirty-one and we follow his journey from his first meeting with Mozart to this, the last day of his life.
To quote the favorite expression of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II who ruled Vienna where Amadeus takes place "there it is" -- the plot of the dramatic and entertaining faction that has now made a striking comeback with its original director, Sir Peter Hall, at the helm.
Playwright Peter Shaffer has tampered with his 1980 Tony award winner just enough to give those who remember the original a nice sense of seeing something old as well as something new. The story line remains intact but Shaffer has given us a Salieri who, if not likeable, is much more human and understandable. He is Machiavelli with a conscience, a rather ordinary bloke (as he puts it, "an ordinary Italian Catholic") with a mile-wide green streak with which the audience can identify. His ironic self-awareness is best illustrated by his misfired seduction of Mozart's wife Constanze (Cindy Katz). David Suchet, best known to Americans as Hercule Poiret of the popular public television mystery series but also a highly respected London stage actor, plays him with a keen, cool wit; and, as needed, with fiery despair.
As for Mozart, you won't soon forget Michael Sheen's portrait of a man who surpasses all expectations of his wunderkind beginnings though his personal development seems arrested at adolescence. The silly giggler with a childish penchant for the scatological is still there. With his funny tilted nose and frizzy curls and amazingly soulful eyes Sheen's Mozart epitomizes the contradictions of the child prodigy-child man. He is a little boy at a grownup party but self-confidently defends his music to the powers behind the emperor's throne who reject what is new and powerful over what is safe (to wit, Salieri's music). His is the certainty and fire of a man possessed by the gift of immortality.
You may come away being more bowled over by Sheen's showy portrayal than Suchet's as his self-mocking nemesis. Yet, it is the contrast between the two that gives the overall experience its bite.
Besides the two leads, there's also a large and excellent supporting cast. David McCallum, who like Suchet is most famous for a TV role, (Illya Kuryakin of The Man From U.N.C.L.E), gives an understated but nevertheless standout performance as the Emperor who loves music as long as it doesn't overtax his attention or have "too many notes. " Cindy Katz's Constanze is equally on target as the wife who likes her childish husband's vulgar fun and games but is soured by their impoverished existence.
My memories of the original Broadway production are clear enough to appreciate what's as good and what's even better in this one. I do't recall the gossiping twosome -- "Venticelli"1 and "Venticilli" 2 -- but I'm unlikely to forget Jake Broder and Charles Janasz who add a spot on humorous leitmotif with their brief "I can't believe it" scenes.
Designer William Dudley has transformed the Music Box's generously proportioned stage into a gorgeous, glittering Vienna with its occupants in a dazzling palettes of rococo splendor. Paule Constable's lighting artfully brings variously assembled groups into focus.
Amadeus being a straight play, nevertheless needs music as much as a parade needs marchers. While director Peter Hall has paraded bits and pieces from Mozart's work this needed and welcome musicality is also the weakest aspect of the production. The musical moments come and go too quickly to make for smooth integration with the script which by contrast could use an occasional bit of tightening.
Whether you prefer your Salieri as villainous as Salieris of old (i.e. Paul Scofield and F. Murray Abraham), this new-old revival is sure to bring camera closeups of many of its participants during the various theater award ceremonies next spring. For sure, Michael Sheen, will be a front runner for carrying home a Tony.