Peter Shaffer’s engrossing AMADEUS (at New Repertory Theatre through May 19th) may name Mozart in the title but the Tony winning play put his rival, Salieri, on the map. Music scholars know the lesser 18th century composer for his rarely performed works but look up Salieri in the music dictionary and his students (Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt) are itemized, not his compositions.
The Mozart-Salieri connection has fascinated writers before. Thornton Wilder wrote a theatrical miniature more than fifty years ago in which Mozart is plagued by fears that Salieri, among others, might be trying to harm him. Shaffer’s play even mirrors the scene from the miniature where Mozart is visited by a mysterious, masked stranger dressed like the avenging statue from Mozart’s incomparable Don Giovanni.
Director Jim Petosa and company capture the lavish, arch style of the late 18th century, aided in good measure by Frances Nelson McSherry’s rich, sumptuous costumes and Rachel Padula Shufelt’s gorgeous wigs. Benjamin Evett’s Salieri wages his war with God as a siege. He will defeat his brilliant competitor by attrition, to repay God for bestowing genius on this “obscene” upstart instead of him. The dogged pursuit of Mozart as prey leaves one cringing from Salieri’s sadistic orchestrations. (Other productions have made Salieri wickedly charming, like Don Giovanni, but not this one.)
As Mozart, Tim Spears cavorts like a wild child, propelling himself like a human skateboard up onto Cristina Todesco’s curved centerpiece. Lines of longitude and latitude spread out onto the floor and a circle cutout in the sculpture becomes a stained glass window, a platform, a perch for Mozart to observe the action below. McCaela Donovan matches Mozart in playful innocence as Constanze, making Salieri’s sexual blackmail even more heinous.
Opera fans will find pleasure in the many references to Mozart’s operas, like the “Pa Pa” nicknames the couple swap (which become “Pa Pa Papageno” in The Magic Flute) or Mozart’s offer to let Constanze beat him when he’s been naughty (which becomes “Batti Batti” in Don Giovanni).
Salieri’s spies, Paula Langton and Michael Kay, add mischief to the mayhem while they carry out their Greek Chorus functions. The court scenes are delightful, with standout performances from Paul D. Farwell as a grumbling old official, from Evan Sanderson as a disapproving Baron, from Jeffries Thaiss as the opinionated Kapellmeister and best of all, from Russell Garrett, hilarious as the earnest but vaguely adrift Emperor Joseph. “Well, there it is.”