How can something so sumptuous also be so balanced?
That’s the delicious riddle of Center Stage’s production of Amadeus, which, under the assured direction of artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah is both visually and aurally lavish, yet empathetic.
Often, with stage productions of Amadeus, and even the 1984 movie, your sympathies lie with Antonio Salieri (Bruce Randolph Nelson), stately court composer for 36 years for the Austrian Emperor Joseph II in 18th century Vienna. Celebrated in his time, but cursed with mediocrity, Salieri harbors a toxic resentment toward Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Stanton Nash), a musical genius beyond compare but with the social skills of an over-tired, over-sugared toddler.
Mozart’s music may be sublime, but his behavior—the infantilism, love of flatulence and screechy giggle—is at first shocking but quickly grows tiresome. Immortality can’t come soon enough. However, in Kwei-Armah’s nuanced, sophisticated production, Nash brings self-awareness and sweetness to Mozart, taking him beyond a mere enfant terrible to a complicated, frustrated and impatient prodigy who is equal parts lunatic and luminary.
The pull between decorum and the indulgence can be seen even before you enter the theater. In the lobby, fancy tableaux of brocaded lords and ladies reading, playing chess and fanning themselves immerse you in the 18th century as you are entertained by a soprano trilling atop a high staircase.
Once inside the theater, you bask in Timothy R. Mackabee’s wedding cake-tiered baroque set, with crystal chandeliers, sky blue Chinoiserie panels, brocade chairs and gilt touches. David Burdick’s elaborate bon-bon hued costumes complete the picture of luxury and richness.
In this milieu, Salieri seems completely at ease. Born under humble circumstances in Italy and seeming to have led a charmed rise to the top after pledging his music and morality to God, Salieri basks in the attention and spoils of court life. His cream curdles once Mozart arrives on the scene, with his equally gauche fiancée Constanze (Kayla Ferguson). A feather in his hat comically wiggles as Mozart bows excessively to the Emperor (one of many witty embellishments in Burdick’s costumes) and screams like Little Richard, and come to think of it, sports a powdered version of the R&B singer’s signature pompadour.
A living sight gag normally would not rattle Salieri, but then there is Mozart’s music. A couple stanzas and Salieri hears the voice of God “from an obscene child.” He cannot understand how divinity can pour so purely from such a foul creature. He, Salieri, has devoted himself and his music to God and how is he rewarded–with empty celebrity instead of the virtuosity he craves.
Angry with his Maker, Salieri abandons his principles and dedicates his life to destroying Mozart’s. Much of the enthralling second act is devoted to his machinations, all the while pretending to be Mozart’s friend and protector.
Nelson’s portrayal of Salieri’s tumble from the moral high ground to low behavior is solid, especially when you watch how he forsakes his vows as if shrugging off an ill-fitting waistcoat. Nelson’s comportment is particularly fine—his erect carriage, perfect diction, and impeccable manners a sharp contrast to Nash’s perpetual state of bedlam. Nash’s vulnerability, coupled with Ferguson’s childlike sense of loyalty and play as Constanze, makes them an arresting couple who are vulgar, yes, but somehow touching.
Closes October 12, 2014
700 North Calvert Street
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Jay Russell and Lucia Spina command the eye every time they appear as two rouged gossips who keep the names of Salieri and Mozart on everyone’s lips.
Amadeus examines the ruthless nature of ambition, which is all about status quo and staying in the public’s favor, in contrast to Mozart’s aim, which was to advance and refine music as a whole, whether it is opera, requiems, simple marches or concertos.
In life, as in music, goodness has nothing to do with it.
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer . Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah . Featuring Steve Brady, William Cooke, Christopher Dews, Cori Dioquino, Yvonne Erickson, Kayla Ferguson, Hillary Mazer, Gannon McHale, Stanton Nash, Bruce Randolph Nelson, James Joseph O’Neill, Kevin Orton, Joel Ottenheimer, Jay Russell, Kedren Spencer, Lucia Spina, Sarah Olmstead Thomas, Ann Turiano . Set design: Timothy R. Mackabee . Costume design: David Burdick . Lighting design: Michelle Habeck . Sound design: Toy Deiorio . Choreography: Paloma McGregor . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Closes Oct. 12
Lynne Menefee . MDTheatreGuide a tour de force
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun a potent concoction, more fiction than fact, that can deliver a pretty entertaining kick.
Amanda Gunther . TheatreBloom There is a glorious disgust woven through the entire production
Jack L.B. Gohn . BroadwayWorld a fresh production all right, but the play itself has gone off a bit.
Gina Jun . DCMetroTheaterArts a magnificent, darkly amusing, historically rich, theatrical production