From artistic history and a lingering rumor, playwright Peter Shaffer crafted a play of enduring power in Amadeus. His depiction of the rivalry between 18th century composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is intricately clever and truth-stretched to suit his storytelling aims. Yet his interpretation resonates: Shaffer’s depiction of a successful, unexceptional older man trying to thwart a young genius has captivated audiences since the play’s debut in 1979.
The thriving Maltz Jupiter Theatre has launched its 10th anniversary season with director Michael Gieleta’s stylized interpretation of Amadeus. Relentlessly dark and sonically muted, Gieleta’s take on the memory play doesn’t seem to be what Maltz audiences (who later this season will see the crowd-pleasers The Music Man, Singin’ in the Rain and Thoroughly Modern Millie) expect. Said one woman at intermission, “My friends thought there would be more music.”
Snippets of music, largely Mozart’s, are threaded through Amadeus. But Shaffer’s purpose isn’t musical biography. He is far more interested in the dichotomy between successful mediocrity and struggling genius, in the sin of envy, in man making bargains with God. His Salieri (Tom Bloom) is a proper, pious Italian who has risen to musical power in the Viennese court of Emperor Joseph II. His Mozart (Ryan Garbayo) is a crude, childish, egotistical prodigy trying to make a living as he churns out great works. Shaffer transforms the “good” Salieri into a sly, murderous devil, while the initially obnoxious Mozart becomes a pitiable, duped victim.
Amadeus has always been a look back by the aged Salieri – embittered, deranged and about to slit his own throat – to the unfolding of his past history with Mozart.
Gieleta and his design team take the idea of the wreckage of an old man’s memories as their inspiration. Scenic designer Philip Witcomb sets Amadeus in a ruined theater, a place sporting crumbling royal boxes, a collapsed harpsichord and slanted surfaces that become an obstacle course for the actors. Lighting designer Keith Parham keeps the illumination low, as if Salieri is trying to summon faces from the darkness of his past. Sound designer Steven Cahill keeps the music (and sometimes the voices) low as well, perhaps signaling Salieri’s desire to push down the memory of Mozart’s brilliance. The concept is clear, but tell that to theatergoers who struggle to see and hear what’s happening onstage.
Bloom is a crafty Salieri, a bit more haughty and less baldly dangerous than some of his predecessors in the role. Garbayo’s braying, giggling, lascivious Mozart is an unfiltered, energetic relief from all the stuffiness that surrounds him. Alexis Bronkovic is empathetic as Mozart’s wife Constanze, and she’s particularly artful as she parries with Bloom over Constanze’s bid to save the family from destitution. Thanks to her beauty and Fabio Toblini’s costumes, Traci Bair is a visually sumptuous Katherina, the soprano Salieri and Mozart have in common. Michael Brian Dunn (as Emperor Joseph II), Richmond Hoxie (as Baron Van Swieten), Gannon McHale (as Count Johan Killian Von Strock) and Ric Stoneback (as Count Orsini Rosenberg) portray the traditionalist aristocracy, with Rowan Meyer and Stephen Pilkington as the gossiping spies whose reports fuel Salieri’s deepening desire for revenge.
Shaffer’s Tony Award-winning play can be a wondrously involving drama. At the Maltz, though, that distancing concept makes it less easy to see the play’s power – literally.