Review: 'AMADEUS' Gets Opulent Revival at OC's South Coast Repertory
Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Los Angeles Columnist
- Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
COSTA MESA CA - To close out its current season, Orange County's Tony-winning regional theater South Coast Repertory has chosen to mount an opulent, high-caliber revival of Peter Shaffer's 1979 play AMADEUS, which continues performances in Costa Mesa through June 5, 2016. The recipient of the 1981 Tony Award for Best Play, AMADEUS most notably became the basis for Milos Forman's Academy Award-winning (and, yes, arguably, much more readily known) 1984 film of the same name.
For SCR's season-ender—engagingly directed by Kent Nicholson—the rather lengthy play is presented with much of the visual grandness one expects from an antiquated period piece, particularly from this particular theater company. And as an added bonus, the play is performed by a cast of incredible, seasoned actors that winningly transports its audience to a time and place centuries ago—even if, curiously, a little bit of modern-speak sneaks in here and there.
Mostly fictional at its core—in that scholars have repeatedly reiterated that the events, personalities, and central conflict depicted in the play (and movie) sprung heavily from the playwright's imagination—the darkly comic drama tracks the supposed contentious relationship between two renowned composers—the seasoned but less appreciated Antonio Salieri (Marco Barricelli) and the younger, apparently wildly buffoonish mad genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Asher Grodman).
When the play begins in 1823, Salieri is of advanced age, ranting and raving like a lunatic—and claiming, out of guilt, that he "poisoned" the great Mozart.
He breaks the fourth wall and begins speaking directly to us, the audience (whom he refers to as ghosts from the future, haha), to explain his outburst, thereby setting up a narrative that is told solely from his point-of-view. Referencing his want to rise above his own sad mediocrity, he spends the remainder of the play outlining his decade-long role in snuffing out one of the world's most celebrated musical geniuses.
We soon flashback to 1781 to Salieri's younger days in Austria's musical hub, Vienna. There, Salieri enjoys a life of wealth and privilege as the court-appointed composer for Emperor Joseph II (Peter Frechette), a ruler with a great admiration for the Arts. All of Vienna, including the Emperor it seems, is all a-buzz over the work of a new arrival in Vienna: a young composer from Salzburg with enormous, recognizable talent named Mozart.
Much to Salieri's surprise, he too is quickly enchanted by Mozart's musical genius, turning into a total fanboy without ever meeting him in person. But little do they all know that the gorgeousness of this young man's music doesn't quite match the personality behind the composer who has crafted it.
So, while at a fancy shindig thrown in Mozart's honor, Salieri—hiding quietly in a private room behind a tall chair munching on a grand selection of confectionery delights—witnesses the celebrated young man in a rather salacious moment with a young lady named Costanze Weber (Liesel Allen Yeager). Unaware of Salieri's presence in the room, the two young lovers proceed to carry on with their, um, naughtiness... much to Salieri's frozen shock (well, okay, he does continue eating desserts, so he can't be that frozen).
Instantly, Salieri thinks... Wait... so THIS is the guy everyone's so gaga over?
As to be expected, the true joy of experiencing the play is rooted in watching the otherwise jovial Salieri slowly but surely boil with jealousy and resentment from within as he watches everyone—from the highest classes of society to the sauciest of local women—still fall madly in love with Mozart more, despite the young man's penchant for scandal, debauchery, and shenanigans. Salieri, of course, continues to recognize Mozart's natural talent and hates that he does still feels that... but, as the play continues, Salieri's hatred grows more and more. He becomes furiously incensed that the very God that he worships and to whom he has devoted his own life's work to has instead bestowed such an honorable gift to someone like Mozart whom he finds so utterly deplorable and so lacking in decency and morality.
Fed up, the once ultra-religious Salieri eventually eschews his allegiance to God—citing his Catholic diety's continued support of Mozart's successful career. Sticking with the clichéd adage that one must keep their friends close and their enemies closer, Salieri's original mission to be a mentor to Mozart is soon discarded in favor of becoming his frenemy, ensuring the young man's ultimate destruction.
Much like a plot straight out of a soap opera, thus begins Salieri's continuous attempts at sabotage of Mozart's upward success—pretending to be his friend, fan, and cheerleader on the surface, while at the same time vehemently smearing his name and artistry behind his back.
For his part, Mozart—despite a seemingly nonchalant attitude towards rules or decorum—still desperately wants his work to be liked, which fuels his fire to produce one brilliant opera after another in order to achieve high-society's praise. Objections to the content of his work are continually brought to the forefront (in part churned by Salieri), but, somehow, the mad genius plows through anyway, mostly because the Emperor himself is ocassionally in Mozart's corner.
As one might guess, Salieri is not pleased.
Along the way, Mozart eventually marries his darling Costanze, who unflinchingly stands by her husband's side despite the constant obstacles that Mozart faces—including Salieri whom they don't even suspect is trying to take him down.
So the question remains... is Salieri indeed responsible for Mozart's demise?
Gorgeous and engaging from start to finish, SCR's latest production of AMADEUS is a posh affair that's a feast of theatrical riches. The dense, dialogue-heavy script may seem a bit overwhelming at first, especially for those seeking much livelier dramas or comedies. But the play manages to make that aspect absorbing, nonetheless.
The cast assembled for the production is phenomenal, particularly its two central figures caught in a Viennese waltz of musical dominance. The super-jealous Salieri is played with grand verbose fashion by the riveting Barricelli, whose monologues filled with acidic wit display the work of a master thespian, reeling in the audience with every single word he says. His direct addresses to the audience easily earns our attention throughout the three-hour (!) play.
As Salieri's unknowing adversary, Grodman brings a believable playfulness, naiveté, sexiness, and sweetness to his wild-eyed Mozart. Perhaps as a reminder to the audience that the play depicts an exaggeratedly fictional narrative, AMADEUS incorporates a mixture of antiquated mannerisms with contemporary colloquialisms. Thus, even Grodman's Mozart has a hint of a surfer accent that I didn't necessarily expect nor object to in the long run. Oh, and that laugh of his, which may have been annoying to Salieri, is actually quite endearing.
Their supporting cast, of course, completes the excellence. Frechette is a hoot as the Emperor, while Yeager is as resplendent as she is compelling in her portrait of Mozart's lover turned loyal wife Constanze. Camille Thornton-Alson is memorable as opera singer Katherina Cavalieri, while Geoffrey Wade, Mark Capri, and Bo Foxworth provide worthy high-brow support and advice to the Emperor. Christian Barillas and Louis Lotorto add humorous moments as Venticellis.
But while the SCR's production of AMADEUS certainly features superb performances all around, the real eye-catching star of the production is its artistic visual qualities, which on its own truly elevates the play to greater heights (and in the process, makes the production worth seeing again even if you've already checked this play off on your to-see list).
From the beautifully ornate costumes designed by Alex Jaeger to the lavish sets designed by John Iacovelli (lit exquisitely by lighting designer Lap Chi Chu), AMADEUS' luxe surroundings distinctively recreate the settings the play depicts. In terms of overall art direction, this season finalé is top-notch.
But for a show that recounts the lives of musicians, there is shockingly far too little actual music in the show (the incidental music, much of which is hardly audible, is almost an afterthought or at the very least a consolation). This seems to be a deliberate aspect of the play that has been (thankfully) expanded for the film adaptation (yes, admittedly, I am one of those that saw the film first before seeing this play, so I've been slightly spoiled by the film's enhancements to the original). In this case... a little less conversation, a little more action, please.
So is it worth revisiting the tug-of-war between Salieri and Mozart? If it is SCR's visually-stunning production, then the answer is an enthusiastic "yes."
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Photos by Debora Robinson & Ben Horak for South Coast Repertory.
Peter Shaffer's AMADEUS continues performances at South Coast Repertory through June 5, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.