Star Ledger, Thursday, Dec. 16, 1999

Magic of 'Amadeus' eludes tepid revival

by Michael Sommers New York - 

"Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art," laments a bitter, jealous Salieri in "Amadeus." Similarly, the furnace of Broadway requires a hotter production than director Peter Hall's lukewarm revival at the Music Box.

"Amadeus" was a blazing theatrical triumph of the early 1980's. Peter Shaffer's depiction of a murderous rivalry between the upstart genius Mozart and composer Salieri in 1780's Vienna remains an elegantly crafted play.

Hall's new production, however, which opened Wednesday, scarcely dims the dazzling memory of his remarkable 1981 Broadway ensemble, which starred Ian MacKellen as Salieri and Tim Curry as Mozart. Boosted by their electricity, Halls' original staging was considerably more flamboyant than his current revival, which is capable but generally lacks panache.

That can't be said for the lustrous leading performance by David Suchet as Salieri, whose smoldering rag flares up believably from within a sleek, urbane presence. His features a veritable playground of sardonic expression, his voice steeped in irony and disdain, Suchet vividly brings the envious Salieri to life as an avenging dark angel who intrigues to ruin Mozart.

The play begins 30 years after Mozart's untimely death as the doddering Salieri, now all but forgotten, feebly claims to be his murderer. Salieri shortly reverts to his 1780's prime as a banal but popular composer established at the Austrian court of Emperor Joseph II. Appalled by the newcomer Mozart's vulgar manners and terrified by his amazing gifts - which Salieri alone recognizes - he craftily proceeds to poison Mozart's budding career.

Salieri actually sees his greater antagonist as God Himself, who blessed the "obscene child" Mozart with genius while giving the persevering Salieri only enough talent to appreciate Mozart's superior powers. By thwarting Mozart, Salieri thus assails the creator who mocks him.

The playwright has revised "Amadeus" slightly in its final confrontation between the musicians so that Salieri's parting visit is not perceived by viewers as leading directly to Mozart's demise. The changes do not significantly alter the play, which is still a highly enjoyable blending of historic fact and musical lore.

But there's a dearth of magic to this production, which doesn't make the most of the play's acting opportunities. Bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Jerry Seinfeld on a bad hair day, Michael Sheen's wild-eyed Mozart giggles and cavorts satisfactorily, but brings little poignant feeling to the role. He simply acts like such a pathetic jerk that Mozart's death almost seems merciful.

David McCallum's laconic portrayal of the lofty but dim emperor is fine, although the remainder of the 20-member ensemble is no better than competent. They bow and scrape through their scenes well enough, but their courtiers and Vienna citizens show not much individuality as characters.

William Dudley's production design involves translucent mirrors, projected images and chandeliers set against shadowy surroundings. Anyone who's reveled in the opulent pictorials of Milos Forman's 1984 Academy Award-winning film of "Amadeus" will be a bit disappointed by Dudley's understated decor.

For that matter, the movie version packs a greater wallop than this stately stage production, which despite Suchet's superb performance, recalls an old "Masterpiece Theatre" re-run that one has seen too often.