“Mediocrity is everywhere,” Antonio Salieri wryly acknowledges in the final seconds of Peter Shaffer’s intriguing drama, “Amadeus.” But not at the Hilberry Theatre, where Shaffer’s script has been blessed with a slick and vibrant production thanks to the excellent work of director Joe Calarco and his impressive cast.
Originally staged in 1979 at London’s National Theatre and a year later on Broadway where it ran for 1,181 performances, “Amadeus” is Shaffer’s highly fictionalized account of the supposed rivalry between 18th century composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. “The conflict between virtuous mediocrity and feckless genius took hold of my imagination,” the playwright once said in an interview, “and it would not leave me alone.” The result is a fascinating study in human nature that proves to what lengths a religious man will go when envy blackens his heart. It also serves this cautionary advice: Be careful what you pray for – because you just might get it!
Salieri, a devout Catholic who serves as composer and Royal and Imperial Kapellmeister in the Austrian court of Emperor Joseph II, wants nothing more than to honor God through great music – and if a little fame comes his way, that would be nice, too. But the arrival of the younger and greatly talented Mozart brings dark thoughts to the surface. “Legends created the ordinary and the ordinary created legends,” Salieri bemoans, acknowledging both his own artistic failings and his rival’s pompous ego and boorish behavior. Still, Salieri can’t help but fall in love with Mozart’s compositions. That doesn’t stop him, however, from setting about to destroy the man who threatens his place in history.
Although much has been written about the liberties Shaffer took in shaping his story, it’s the unfolding psychological drama that rivets the audience to their seats. That’s particularly true with Calarco’s perfectly-paced production. (It seems to run considerably less than only minutes short of three hours.) For despite the script’s intensity, Calarco also finds its lighter moments and has fun with them.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with the role of Salieri. Rather than having him played as a dour, spiteful and generally dislikable villain, Calarco has actor Christopher M. Bohan find the composer’s humanity. The result is a Salieri who has come to accept the cosmic joke fate – or God – has played on him, and his storytelling reflects that. It’s a fun and remarkable portrayal from start to finish.
Also having a blast are Jeff Luttermoser as the delightfully tacky Mozart; lovely Cynthia D. Barker as his vivacious wife, Constanze; and Nathan Magee as Joseph II. And gossip queens Michael Boynton and Sean Patrick Ward are a hoot as the Venticellis.
All of the show’s technical aspects are class acts, from the sheet music-themed set by Brad Darvas to Liz Moore’s exquisite costumes. And the lighting design by Andrew Morehouse compliments both quite well.
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in repertory through March 3. Tickets: $15-$28. For information: 313-577-2972 or http://www.hilberry.com