Antonio Salieri, one of the greatest composers of the late 18th century, was also his own worst enemy. And if he had any idea of the esteem in which the public holds his archrival, he'd about pass a stone. To hear him tell it, Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart-an "obscene child," a "sniggering... creature," the "swanky son" of a fawning, fading, witless violinist-was all that stood between him and the veneration that marks the other man's legacy. Amadeus, Peter Shaffer's Tony-winning script and Oscar-winning screenplay, even exploits the idea that Salieri killed the titanic Austrian composer amid years of pent-up envy.
Most scholars reject that notion for the skunk bait it probably is. But in Shaffer's hands, the rumor sure makes for captivating drama.
Lamb's Players Theatre is taking a turn at Amadeus right now. That's very cool for three reasons. The Mozemeister's 250th birthday is being celebrated throughout the solar system this year (Jan. 27 was the big day), and the company sought to add its voice to the nearly 14 million local events marking the milestone. The script is right up the Players' alley, heavy on simplistic, universal themes and an ideal fit with the group's ensemble and tech traditions. Above all, director Kerry Meads sees the play for exactly what it is. She's left the landmark film to its own flashy devices, reducing the principals' rivalry to its most common denominator(s). The movie's fine, but it's no substitute for this.
The title refers to what everybody thinks is the composer's middle name-but Amadeus, Latin for "loved by God," is actually a moniker Mozart gave himself. As Shaffer tells it, that quirk pales against a life buried in eccentricities. He colors Mozart (Jon Lorenz) with a colossal ego, an affinity for bathroom humor, dalliances with his students, a terrible feel for money and infantile patter with his dippy girlfriend Constanze Weber (an outstanding Colleen Kollar), whom he'd later marry. She's his little "shit-wit"; he's her "pussy-wussy," given to cheesy giggles and succulent fart noises as he hikes the rear of her gown and claws at the air.
"The girl who doesn't love me," he eventually bleats to no one in particular, "can lick my arse instead! Pffffttttttt!!!"
The brooding Salieri (David Cochran Heath) lurches and lurks as the strains of Mozart's pieces envelop him, cursing God for endowing Mozart with the gifts he believes are rightfully his. He never tells Mozart as much to his face, of course, and that's where Meads steps in to mediate. By the time the men meet, their unbridled passions have spoken for themselves-so Meads wisely tones down their exchanges to intensify the unacknowledged conflict. It works to a T, with Heath and Lorenz deftly gathering grist for their venomous private attacks on each other. And how does Heath do that thing with his voice, where he ages it 35 years at the drop of a hat? He internalizes Salieri's despair, that's how, and every other physical shading seems to follow.
Heath's great performance underscores the fact that this is really Salieri's story. Indeed, it's a testament to the roily nature of history's also-rans, especially when the alphas are the icons of the age. Membership in that club dates to recorded history, and somebody started taking names eons before Salieri and Mozart met. You'd think the kids would have made peace by now, it being Mozie's birthday and all. But that's music-the eternal backdrop for the love and lust that sets the world to turning. And while this show may or may not get the better of you, it's an excellent illustration of Salieri's Faustian musical passions and how they got the better of him.
This review is based on the matinée performance of June 10. Amadeus runs through July 23 at the Ione and Paul Harter Stage, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado. $24-$44. 619-437-0600.
For good reason
As you learned here a couple weeks ago, La Jolla Playhouse's Zhivago is a spiffed-up, tricked-out, dumbed-down husk of novelist Boris Pasternak's full-throated Doctor Zhivago-and that's why Broadway'll eat it up when it likely gets there. But some Playhouse-generated entries make it to New York for all the right reasons, like decent scripts and solid commentary on popular culture. Jersey Boys, first produced at La Jolla in 2004, is one such show. Sunday night, it garnered half the eight Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including best musical, leading actor, featured actor (San Diego native Christian Hoff) and lighting design.
Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff, who helmed the bioplay about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, received a best-director nom. John Doyle won that award for the revival of Stephen Sondheim's great Sweeney Todd-but whereas McAnuff's Zhivago plays to everything wrong with Broadway, his Jersey Boys exploits some eminently exploitable material. In this instance, Des and the Playhouse deserve some serious props for a job seriously well done.
Write to marty[at]edarts[dot]info and editor[at]SDcitybeat[dot]com.