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A CurtainUp Review
Bach at Leipzig
By Elyse Sommer
When Johann Kuhnau, the kapellmeister of the Thomaskirsche in Leipzig collapses while playing his organ one of his potential successors declare "he performed his own dirge with his face." This musical last hurrah also sets in motion a farcical fugue in which the voices making themselves heard belong to six of Germany's leading musicians, all named either Johann or Georg. In 1722 Leipzig, being the chief music man of the Thomaskirsche was as big a deal as any job at Trump's empire on The Apprentice.
Kuhnau as well as the other characters in Bach in Leipzig are based on real people. However, the way the twenty-eight-year-old Itamar Moses, who has been widely referred to as the heir to Tom Stoppard's crown as the king of cerebral yet often hysterically funny word play, reimagines the audition for Kuhnau's job is pure fiction.
Johann Sebastian Bach, is never seen though as anyone familiar with his biography knows, he's the one who evenutally nabs the job that's this play's holy grail; and so, his name in the title. The fact that the musicians on stage aren't nearly as famous as Bach doesn't matter one whit because the farceurs assembled in the anteroom of the Thomaskirche where Moses' play takes place are some of New York's finest actors. Watching them stoop to all manner of chicanery to conquer the prized position is enough to forgive the play's youthful excesses, chief of which is an overly long first act and a tendency for the exchanges about religious and aesthetic theories doctrines to often sound like grandstanding, wannabe Stoppardism.
The ensemble excellence and the play's cleverness reach their peak at the top of the second act when the playwright's variation of the audience addressing monologue, a letter read aloud before sending it off by carrier pigeon, details the structure of a fugue. The how-to missive writer is Johann Friedrich Fasch (Boyd Gaines). The recipient is his wife who wants to try her hand at composing. As Fasch explains the way a fugue works, the rest of the ensemble acts out his instructions. Audience members who haven't yet caught on that the playwright has adopted the fugue's structure for his farce will fully understand the first act set-up by the conclusion of this show-stopping scene.
Tbough the competitors are alike in that they are all desperate to get the job and have one or the other of just two first names, they are as different as a harpsichord and a tuba. The radical Fasch (Gaines), who in his opening monologue declares his belief that God's role in music should not interpreted literally. His rival, Georg Balthasar Schott (Michael Emerson), is a traditionalist who expresses his outrage at the thought of innovation with "This is not Italy!"
Georg Lenck (Reg Rogers) is an occasionally cross-dressing gambler and a scoundrel who's likely to make a handshake an opportunity to steal a ring ("A keyboardist's fingers. If I don't keep them busy, they busy themselves"), and for whom winning the audition is his last chance at glory. Another last chance contender is Johann Christoph Graupner (Andrew Weems), the country's second-best organist for whom the post is the means to free himself from being overshadowed by the Number One man, Georg Philipp Telemann (Jonathan Donahue, the company's assistant stage manager, making several grandly dressed but wordless appearances).
For utmost silliness, there's also a political subplot revolving around two warring feudal domains, Zwickau and Merseburg, two of whose leading citizens have come to Leipzig hoping to fill the vacant church post -- Meresburg's ambassador to Zwickau, the obtuse George Friedrich Kaufman (Richard Easton) and Johann Martin Steindorff (Jeffrey Carlson), the son of Zwickau conservative ruler. Kaufman is so dim and foolish that he only notices that one of his sons is partly Chinese when he comes of age. He also believes that the shenanigans of his fellow musicians which he keeps interrupting are part of the rehearsal for a play entitled The Undeniably Credulous Fool. Steindorff represents the other side of this coin, a cuckolder rather than a cuckold who views the Thomaskirsche job as a way to break free of his father, though he's not above ruthlessly using the family money to blackmail the hapless Lenck.
It's hard to single out any one in this topflight ensemble as each actor interprets his would-be kapellmeister flawlessly and hilariously. If I had to pick a favorite, I guess it would be the always superb Reg Rogers -- but then, who can do frilly and silly better than Richard Easton? And isn't Michael Emerson's Schott a riot and Boyd Gaines a wonderful surprise playing against type?
This production bestows double blessings on Mr. Moses. In addition to the stellar cast, director Pam MacKinnon and her design team splendidly support the verbal pyrotechnics. David Zinn's handsome church antechamber has the requisite number of doors to allow the farce to move into high gear (An interesting aside: While the doors accommodate plenty of entrances and exits, none get slammed). Matthew J. Lefebvre's costumes are plush and, as needed, add to the general hilarity. David Lander's lighting and John Gromada's sound design serve their purpose with commendable inconspicuousness.
Bach at Leipzig is literate and funny, despite that dragged out first act and even if it's more clever than truly profound -- the theatrical version of a Smoothie that mixes philosophizing and belly laugh stirring plot complications and is refreshing but not filling. Though there's been talk of interest by Broadway producers, this is a play that seems most at home in a downtown or regional theater environment, so don't wait for a move but get a ticket to see this topnotch cast and the New York debut of a young playwright who's bound to be heard from again.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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