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Opening night of Oak Park Festival Theatre's Amadeus was threatened by impending predicted showers but the rain held off until literally the last lines of dialogue were being delivered. Talk about a show-biz miracle!
This classy, riveting production was savored by a large, receptive audience; not one person left early despite the ominous distant rumblings of thunder.
Lots of us may recall the 1984 Milos Forman film version of English playwright Peter Shaffer's hit drama. It was visually lush and turned Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart into a pop-culture figure. (People even started playing Mozart music for their newborns, believing it would boost their kid's IQ.) The play is more intense, however, more tightly focused than the movie. It feels fresh and exciting.
Amadeus, presented outdoors in Austin Gardens is blessed with strong production values and a phenomenally talented cast. The two lead players are especially remarkable. Deftly directed by Mark Richard, this intelligent, fast-paced production really kicks off Festival's 39th summer nicely.
Did Antonio Salieri, a renowned hack composer in the 18th Century Imperial Court of Austria, vindictively poison the genius upstart composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who died at 35? The plot, based on rumor and historical speculation, revolves around the complex rivalry of the two composers.
Kevin Theis, a longtime Festival favorite, is outstanding in the massive role of Salieri, our narrator.
He is a fully realized villain, yet Salieri generates our sympathy as he tells his tale in flashback at the end of his life. When the play opens, he is a bitter 70-something, sitting in a wheelchair.
Theis commands the stage for the play's nearly 2½-hour running time. We spend the entire evening in his hands. His range is astonishing: Salieri has numerous monologues running the gamut from disbelief to outrage to revenge. By the end of the evening, we identify completely with the cunning, devious Italian court composer who was ruined once the dazzling prodigy showed up in Vienna.
Mozart is depicted as crude and selfish, childishly obsessed with flatulence and elimination. But Chris Daley is hilarious as well as touching, bringing out the childlike goodness and spontaneity, as well as his giggly, incorrigible, almost bipolar behavior. Daley is oddly endearing, making several rather abrupt transitions credible.
When Salieri encounters the preciously gifted Mozart, he's brutally, abruptly forced to recognize the limitations of his own mediocre talent. The young composer crafts the most glorious music Salieri has ever heard. Amadeus means "Beloved of God" and Salieri believes God is mocking him. His hard-won fame is suddenly surpassed by this potty-mouthed golden boy. So he seeks his revenge by plotting to destroy Mozart. Deviously, methodically, Salieri begins blocking appointments and sabotaging productions.
Mozart, meanwhile, sees through the hypocritical formality of the age and strives to shake things up a bit. He seems to almost single-handedly rescue opera from its dull, overly classical fixation.
This is essentially a two-person play and Theis and Daley keep the energy flowing back and forth. But the excellent supporting cast is large and lively.
Jonathan Nicols is the ever-hovering, musically clueless patron of the arts, Emperor Joseph II of Austria.
Mozart's wife, Constanze, nicely played by Meg Warner as a feisty airhead, shares her husband's love of childish mischief yet has a good head for business.
Sycophantic courtiers are Joe Bianco, Kavid Elliott, and Kyle Gibson. The Two Gossips are Mark Plonsky and Pat King.
Clueless voice pupil Catherina Cavelieri is played by Molly Lyons.
The period-authentic costuming by Emily McConnell is eye-catching and impressive. Everyone wears the upholstered look of the late 18th century. The wig budget alone must be staggering.
The towering wooden set, a royal Great Hall with draperies and multiple doors, is the fine work of designer Joe Schermoly. In all the Festival productions I have seen over the years I don't remember sitting outside watching a summer show set entirely "inside."
Director Richard inventively uses the double-doors in the center of the tall set as various Mozart productions are being debuted. The doors are quickly opened and closed to reveal packed houses of extras swooning and applauding. Julia Zavas-Melendez is the stage manager.
The artfully lit production looks and sounds terrific. Daniel Carlyon's sound design is superior. There are many instances of lip-synching and piano playing that look credible. One particularly impressive effect, early on, is when gossip is being whispered, seemingly all around us.
When the rain began to lightly fall during Salieri's final rant against God, the delighted audience responded with laughter. Amadeus was thrilling in multiple ways on Opening Night.
By the way, Oak Park Festival Theatre's artistic director, Jack Hickey, greeted the audience before the show and announced the summer choices for 2014 — Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet and Oscar Wilde's comedy The Importance of Being Earnest — for the company's 40th season.
But Amadeus, a powerful production that's smart and fun, is really a must-see now.