Peter Hall’s new production of “Amadeus,” fresh from the West End and on its way to Broadway, has all the trappings of a successful revival: a cast of fine actors, expensive costumes and sets and a compelling story to tell. But somehow Hall’s conventional restaging invites fewer cheers than one had hoped. Not that there’s anything wrong with this production; it’s just strangely unmoving. Perhaps because Milos Forman’s sublime 1983 film still lingers in the memory, Shaffer’s stage play seems, well, superfluous.
For one thing, Shaffer’s three-hour play, now slightly tweaked and including a new confessional scene in the second act, drags a bit. The playwright’s words are often beautiful, certainly his writing is accomplished and intelligent (a host of in-jokes will delight Mozarteans), but there are, as the Emperor Joseph II foolishly says of the notes in Mozart’s score, too many of them. Shaffer has several thought-provoking themes running through this play, but his tendency to harp on them can wear on the audience. Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart’s genius, the frame on which Shaffer has built this play, offers ample opportunity for both comedy and drama, but after a while, the elder composer’s bitterness becomes old hat. So, too, does Salieri’s quarrel with God himself, this play’s real central conflict.
There is a reason Shaffer called his play “Amadeus,” which translates as beloved of God, and not “Mozart.” Though the play deals with real people (even if much of the action is pure fiction), its essence is metaphorical: man’s eternal struggle with his creator. Salieri’s real fight is not with the boy-man Mozart, but rather with a God who would place divine talent in a vulgar vessel. And his chief enemy is not Mozart’s music, but his own mediocrity, which he has the great misfortune to perceive.
But “Amadeus” is a work that exists more than in the mind of its central character. Eighteenth-century Vienna was a vibrant place, and Shaffer’s play takes audiences to grand salons, palaces, music halls, Masonic lodges and tenements. Unfortunately, even a lavish production can’t keep pace with such a tour, and William Dudley’s set design only approximates the grandeur and squalor the play conjures. Relying heavily on mirrors and projections, as well as Paule Constable’s lambent lighting, to lend atmosphere, Dudley’s approach is for the most part outmoded and dull. Not so his costumes, however. They are rich, eye-catching numbers, occasionally even worthy of the gasps they elicit. Matt McKenzie’s sound design is more problematic. For auds used to hearing Mozart in the concert hall or on a good stereo, the Ahmanson’s tinny system proves a grave disappointment, barely doing justice to these heavenly strains.
As for the acting, few quibbles. David Suchet offers a polished, witty Salieri, one more eager for our laughs than sympathy. Occasionally, he waxes poetic and holds us rapt, as when describing the touching finale to the fourth act of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” And he handles well the challenge of alternatingly presenting the old and middle-aged Salieri. Michael Sheen’s Mozart is less well drawn (which is mostly Shaffer’s fault), and his boisterous laugh sounds too much like Tom Hulce’s in the film. But the actor is an effective vulgarian, and he plays the spoiled child to the hilt.
Cindy Katz, as Constanze, Mozart’s wife, seems a little too poised, but she handles a tough, often unrewarding, role with vim. The lesser parts are all well cast, with a coolly memorable perf coming from David McCallum as the unflappable Joseph II. And Jake Broder and Charles Janasz tackle the “Venticelli” (the “little winds” who spy for Salieri) with such relish they’re almost lovable.
Hall’s direction is so unobtrusive as to be almost absent. It may be churlish to complain about a helmer who lets his actors and designers do their work unmolested, but one can’t help hoping that such a talent would place some kind of signature on this play. Indeed, this lack of a personal stamp makes one wonder why “Amadeus” was revived in the first place. From L.A., show heads straight to Gotham with cast and production team intact.