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A CurtainUp DC Review

I wanted fame, only in music — Salieri.
Photo caption: Ian Merrill Peakes as Antonio Salieri
Every now and then the stars align with a perfect play, superb direction, set and costumes, inspired lighting and a performance by the lead that is brilliant. Such is the case with Amadeus at the Folger Theatre, with Ian Merrill Peakes as Salieri.

On entering the Folger Theatre, a little jewel that seats (not very comfortably) 250, and seeing Tony Cisek's set for the first time, it is obvious that the evening was going to be special. From the stage to the flies, there are harp-like structures that let Max Doolittle's lighting through -- much like sun coming through bare tree limbs but prettier. Salieri (Ian Merrill Peakes, whose performance is incomparable) is an old man slumped into a wheel chair. But within minutes he has transformed himself into an arrogant middle-aged man who is conversing with God about how he wishes God would speak through his music. Not only does Salieri change from what looks like a dressing gown and sleeping cap into the kind of jacket and garters worn in the upper echelons of society in Vienna in the 18th-century, but his posture and his voice become stronger, younger. What looks effortless as is evident again and again in Peakes's performance, takes tremendous skill.

Salieri's position in Vienna is challenged by the arrival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a young brat from Salzburg with a foul mouth (did Mozart have Tourette's Syndrome, scholars have wondered), who is given to outbursts and bad jokes. His boorish behavior gets overlooked as his extraordinary musical genius is recognized. Vienna soon realizes that Mozart's talent far surpasses Salieri's. Samuel Adams as Mozart brings an exuberant physicality and silly laugh to the part. It's easy to understand why his behavior was abhorred and his music adored. His death scene is particularly somber and moving.

Watching these two actors engage with one another is a joy. Ambition, envy and revenge give Salieri a kind of venality that is not exactly unknown in Washington. But his attempts at undercutting Mozart's rise are matched by Mozart's undisputed nerve. This is not exactly a ping pong match but the very able director, Richard Clifford, keeps the tension between the two at just the right level to keep an audience riveted. The supporting cast ranges from good to adequate.

The set, which does not change -- tables, chairs, a piano get wheeled on -- is a constant reminder that what is at the heart of this play is music. The costumes made from brocades are exquisite. So the entire performance is a feast for the eyes. And then there's the music. What music! the best there is. Sharath Patel, along with Director Clifford, listened to numerous recordings in order to find the best ones, at the right length of course, to include. They must have worked hard because their selections are faultless.

Amadeus, (latin for love and for God) at nearly three hours, is long and talky. But to listen to Peakes/Salieri bargain with God and spar with Adams/Mozart never loses its momentum. -- his outbursts, bad jokes and ultimate demise.

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Amadeus by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Richard Clifford
Scenic Design, Tony Cisek
Costume Design, Mariah Anzaldo Hale
Lighting Design, Max Doolittle
Sound Design, Sharath Patel
Cast: Justin Adams (Baron van Swieten); Samuel Adams (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart); Amanda Bailey (Venticello); Louis Butelli (Venticello); Junior Gomez (Salieri's Valet); Lilli Hokama (Constanze Weber); James Joseph O'Neil (Count Orsini-Rosenberg); Yvonne Paretzky (Teresa Salieri); Ian Merrill Peakes (Antonio Salieri); John Taylor Phillips (Emperor Joseph II); Ned Read (Kapellmeister Bonno); Deidra LaWan Starnes (Madame von Strack); Kathryn Zoerb (Kathryn Zoerb).
Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Folger Theatre, ; November 5 to December 22, 2019.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson at November 14, 2019 performance.

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