'Amadeus' at the Cleveland Play House is a Sumptuous Duel of Talent and Envy

In the battle of composer Antonio Salieri's vs. Mozart, the audience wins

click to enlarge The cast of AMADEUS at Cleveland Play House. - Photo by Roger Mastroianni.
Photo by Roger Mastroianni.
The cast of AMADEUS at Cleveland Play House.
There's nothing better than a juicy yarn about a battle between two powerful people. From Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr to J. Robert Oppenheimer vs. Lewis Strauss, the sparks fly and we are left fully entertained by the end.

The stage version of such a tilt, Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, is now at the Cleveland Play House. But what's different and fascinating is that the competitors are wildly mismatched. Set in 18th and 19th century Vienna, the stuffy, journeyman composer Antonio Salieri is in a pitched battle with God over the latter's thoughtless decision to bestow on another composer, one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, musical gifts Salieri can only applaud and envy. Oh yeah, lots of envy.

This is a sumptuous, in-the-round production that moves with silky effortlessness under the direction of Laura Gordon. And it gets almost everything right, minus a small shortfall with regards to one performance.

In this imagined retelling, Mozart is a young genius—half of Salieri's age—with a penchant for rampant sex and salacious jokes. Offended by the crude upstart and covetous of his talent, Salieri decides to destroy God's creation, the irrepressible and gargantuanly gifted Wolfie, to gain for himself a certain godlike power and relieve himself of the misery of his own mediocrity.

As you may know from the film of the same name, which opened 40 years ago, this is basically a two-hander with a number of other characters filling in necessary slots in the plotline. But this version emphasizes the role of Salieri, so that we can truly understand the torment he endures with Mozart in the same town, writing complex musical compositions without any scratch-outs or corrections. As Salieri notes, it's as if his young foe is "transcribing his works directly from God."

Price Waldman does an exquisite job of moving easily from the elderly Salieri back to when he first encountered Mozart. And as he plans his strategy for revenge against both his rival and God himself, he clearly elucidates what's at stake. Following the Godfather Rule (Keep your friends close and your enemies closer), he gets chummy with Mozart so he can place obstacles in his path at every turn, mostly by denying Mozart the paying jobs he needs to survive. Waldman is a pure pleasure to watch as he slowly twists himself into a grotesque, made lifeless by his own nefarious doings.

The role of Mozart is played by Will Blum, who brings compassion and yearning to his later scenes when he feels the wheels coming off of what began as a magical early life as the wunderkind of classical music. Blum makes Mozart's decline and fall at age 35 almost visceral.

But at the beginning, Wolfgang's obnoxious antics don't ring quite true as he chases a woman around and wrestles her to the floor. Perhaps it's because such scenes have to be carefully orchestrated, what with intimacy guidelines and such, but there is a lack of spontaneity to these moments that undercuts the nature of Mozart's conflicted nature. He's an out-of-control adolescent with the innovative and inspired mind of a musical deity dropped onto Earth.

The strong supporting cast includes a fiesty Madeline Calais-King as Wolfie's hot gal pal Constanze and Steve Marvel as the blissfully clueless Emperor Joseph II. He is the person Salieri manipulates to deny Mozart the funds he requires, sending him into penury and worse.

While music plays a role in this production, most of it ("The Marriage of Figaro," "The Magic Flute," his "Requiem Mass") is recorded with the two lead actors plinking out some notes on a harpsichord now and then. A more generous sampling of the music, with a real musician or two thrown in, might have given the production a lift while offering proof, in case you needed it, of Mozart's monumental brilliance.

The name Amadeus means "loved by God," and that is exactly what drives Salieri—the self-described "Patron Saint of Mediocrities"—over the edge. He even curses his own longevity, noting that "I survived to become extinct."

This CPH production traces every step of that tormented man's journey with style and relish.

Through April 28 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., clevelandplayhouse.com, 216-241-6000.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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