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Theater Review: “Amadeus”

“Amadeus” plays through October 6, 2019 at North Coast Repertory Theatre
Photo credit:
Aaron Rumley

It’s always good to start a play with a mystery, and Peter Shaffer’s 1979 “Amadeus” opens with a dandy: Viennese citizens whispering among themselves and asking in hushed tones “Did he do it?”

They’re talking about the rumors that composer Antonio Salieri poisoned young upstart Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Shaffer’s play popularizes a murder that never happened and overstates a musical rivalry that never reached the extent portrayed, but the piece is still endlessly fascinating, and won eight Tonys in 1981. The play hasn’t been presented locally since 2011, largely because it’s expensive to produce, requiring a large cast and terrific period costumes.

But now it’s back (and has already been extended through Oct. 6) in a spectacular production opening North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 38th season.

Salieri (Tony Amendola) was a known musical commodity in Vienna when the young, brash (to the point of unmannerly) Salzburgian Mozart (Rafael Goldstein) showed up there, hoping to meet the new Emperor Joseph II (Louis Lotorto) and perhaps acquire a patron.

He did meet the emperor, but first he met Salieri, in an unforgettable scene involving the young composer playing “cat” to the “mouse” of his future wife Constanze (Kathryn Tkel) in a silly game that has them crawling around on the floor making animal sounds. Meanwhile, a horrified Salieri sits a few feet away.

What can you do when you’re a devout Catholic who has dedicated his modest musical talent to the Almighty, only to find yourself confronted by a brash, mannerless “obscene child” with obvious musical genius?

It’s the kind of thing that might inspire murder, all right, especially after Mozart makes a few “suggestions” to “improve” a short piece Salieri plays on the piano. (That Mozart was right does not help.)

Shaffer plays up Salieri’s supposed sabotage efforts. Director Richard Baird and his cast pretty much let the words speak for themselves, which makes for great drama.

This is a dramatic win-win for everyone involved – especially the audience, which can’t help being fascinated, amused, horrified and finally sad for both protagonists.

Salieri had the worst of it: in the final scene (Shaffer wrote this scene six times), Salieri, having failed to stop the young whippersnapper, can’t even succeed at suicide, but instead recovers and is left to suffer with his modest talent for 30 more years. Whether or not it’s true, it’s undeniably a dramatic success.

Marty Burnett’s reconfigurable set provides a fine backdrop for the real stars: Elisa Benzoni’s spectacular period costumes. Matt Novotny contributes most effective and dramatic lighting, and Rumley’s sound design is fine.

Goldstein and Amendola play up the difference between dedication and genius in attitude, bearing, the brilliant words they are given to say, and of course in the varying quality of the music they play for us.

Kathryn Tkel’s Constanze is a pretty and charming presence (despite that first appearance), and increasingly devoted to Mozart. Leigh Ellen Akin contributes some fine vocal work as young singer (and Salieri pupil) Katherina Cavalieri

Christopher M. Williams and Alice Sherman are excellent as Salieri’s gossipy Venticelli, who provide Salieri with information about Mozart.

“Amadeus” is one of the best (if not most historically accurate) musicals ever written, and North Coast Rep does it proud. Don’t miss this show.

The details

“Amadeus” plays through October 6, 2019 at North Coast Repertory Theatre

987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive (Suite D) in Solana Beach.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.