There are countless stories wherein the protagonist makes a deal with the devil and goes on to both benefit from and regret the consequences. In Peter Shaffer's 1981 Tony Award-winning play Amadeus, the central character, composer Antonio Salieri, makes a deal with God that establishes a strict path for his life in exchange for one gift that fails to deliver the desired outcome. Having wished to achieve fame by devoting his life to composing music, it is only when he experiences the heavenly creations by his rival Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that Salieri comes to realize what his wish was lacking.
The cast. Tim Spears as Mozart, left; Benjamin Evett as Salieri, center
By comparison to the boy prodigy, Salieri's talents may have been pedestrian, but there is nothing pedestrian about the New Repertory Theatre's production, directed by Artistic Director Jim Petosa and featuring Benjamin Evett as Salieri and Tim Spears as Mozart. The fifteen-member ensemble is stacked with talented performers, from the leading players to the servants, with many familiar faces and eight making their New Rep debuts. Providing a sumptuous feast for the eyes, designer Frances Nelson McSherry dresses them all in the most stunning, opulent costumes reflective of the Renaissance period, topped off by Rachel Padula Shufelt's varied wig designs. Sound Designer David Remedios ensures that the rapturous musical selections swell and permeate the theater to illustrate the beauty and genius of Mozart's work.
Shaffer employs dramatic license imagining the final night in the life of Salieri, a frail and somewhat bitter old man reminiscing and retelling how his destiny intersected with and influenced that of Mozart. Evett is an enchanting storyteller and almost magically transforms from the elderly Salieri to the younger, vital man who served the court of Joseph II, the Emperor of Austria. Russell Garrett is delightful as the ruler who so often dismisses unpleasantness with a wave of his lace handkerchief and the droll statement, "Well, there it is." Members of the Emperor's court who stand out are Jeffries Thaiss as snippy Count Orsini-Rosenberg, the Master of Opera who attempts to foil Mozart at every turn; Paul D. Farwell, gruff and comical as Johann Kilian von Strack, another musical advisor to Joseph who is less than friendly to the young composer; and Evan Sanderson as gloomy Baron van Swieten, who champions the lad until he commits an egregious faux pas.
Spears is a revelation as he portrays the two sides of Amadeusimmature social boor and otherworldly musical geniusand forms spirited pairings with Evett as his rival and winsome McCaela Donovan as Constanze Weber, his fiancée and later wife. Spears has boundless energy and his youthful joy and exuberance are infectious when his character is sitting on top of the world, or his wife, or the piano. As Mozart ages, he matures slightly and develops gravitas in relation to his family responsibilities, but the only limits on his musical evolution are from external sources. The jealousy and scheming surrounding him deny him the ability to support himself or live comfortably, causing major disruptions in the form of health issues and family strife. Spears shows Mozart's frustration, anger, and confusion at this turn of events, as well as his marked physical and psychological decline.
Weber's story arc takes her from a flirtatious young object of desire to the world weary spouse, both disappointed in and supportive of her husband. Donovan is fun and sassy, rolling around on the floor with Spears or showing her legs to a couple of men who beat her at cards. Her best scenes are with Evett when Weber seeks to make a deal with Salieri, only to be humiliated by him. Salieri's "Venticelli" (little winds) keep him apprised of what's going on with Mozart and the outside worldthink of them as town criersand Michael Kaye and Paula Langton are fabulously bitchy and bawdy in the roles. Rounding out the ensemble are Esme Allen as Salieri's protégé, Emily Culver as his disinterested wife, and John Geoffrion, Nathaniel Gundy, Gabriel Rodriguez and Mark Soucy.
Working with a cast of this caliber may have made the director's job somewhat easier, but Amadeus is a complex play that travels back and forth in time and location. Petosa keeps all of the balls in the air and sets a pace that belies the fact that the show runs nearly three hours. He heightens the drama by accenting the musical quality of the dialogue, with actors' voices mimicking the crescendo of an operatic selection, diminishing as a piece comes to its conclusion, or fading into awestruck silence. Cristina Todesco's set represents a multitude of locales, including Joseph's court and a church, and Mary Ellen Stebbins' lighting transports the listener to any stage where Mozart's works are being performed. Shaffer's epic play has the capacity to transport us to 18th-century Europe with his well-crafted story, and Petosa and company do it justice.
Amadeus, performances through May 26 at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org. A play with music by Peter Shaffer, Directed by Jim Petosa; Cristina Todesco, Scenic Designer; Frances Nelson McSherry, Costume Designer; Mary Ellen Stebbins, Lighting Designer; David Remedios, Sound Designer; Alexander Grover, Props Designer; Rachel Padula Shufelt, Wig Designer; Leslie Sears, Production Stage Manager; Kevin Schlagle, Assistant Stage Manager
Cast: Esme Allen, Emily Culver, McCaela Donovan, Benjamin Evett, Paul D. Farwell, Russell Garrett, John Geoffrion, Nathaniel Gundy, Michael Kaye, Paula Langton, Gabriel Rodriguez, Evan Sanderson, Mark Soucy, Tim Spears, Jeffries Thaiss