Date: 12-16-1999, Thursday
Section: YOUR TIME 
Edition: All Editions -- Four Star B, Three Star B, Two Star P, One Star B

AMADEUS: A Broadway revival, at the Music Box Theater, 239 W. 45th St. Written by Peter Shaffer. With David Suchet, Michael Sheen, and Cindy Katz. Directed by Peter Hall. $25 to $70. (212) 239-6200.

At the beginning of "Amadeus," as an aged Antonio Salieri speaks to us -- the "ghosts of the future" -- about his great crime against Mozart, the house lights at the Music Box Theater come up and the audience sees its ghostly self reflected in a huge mirror at the back of the stage.

It's just one example of the compelling stagecraft of Peter Hall, who has directed this revival, just as he did the wildly successful original production of "Amadeus" 20 years ago.

It's Hall's consummate sense of the uses of theater, and several fine performances, that delight us in this production, which opened Wednesday night. Once again, though, Peter Shaffer's play seems overrated as drama. It's imaginative, but glib rather than deep, and not terribly involving.

If you saw the Tony-winning original or the Oscar-winning film version, you know it's about Salieri's growing hatred of Mozart. An honored court composer, and a religious man, Salieri is enraged at the immensely greater musical gift that God has given Mozart, a vulgar and silly youth.

Salieri vows to fight God, and to destroy his rival, perhaps -- the possibility is left open -- even poison him.

David Suchet, best known to American TV watchers as Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot, is a very adept stage actor, and he gives a lively, engaging performance. He carries the audience in the palm of his hand as he does such things as change in an instant from the feeble, croaking-voiced Salieri to the blooming young one.

Michael Sheen is an affecting Mozart, revealing the open, naively honest man existing within the foolish, immature one. Wan and hollow-eyed, he also makes Mozart's final illness the one truly touching instance in the play.

Cindy Katz portrays Constanze, Mozart's saucy wife, in a properly earthy manner.

As the story of Salieri's plotting develops, with poor Mozart failing to understand why the masterpieces he keeps writing aren't enhancing his career, Hall moves events swiftly and colorfully, holding our attention.

But as the long play continues on -- it runs almost 3 hours -- its machinery becomes ever more apparent.

Shaffer has a pattern, in which the scene is set for the writing of one of Mozart's great works -- "The Magic Flute" for presentation in a music hall! -- after which we see Salieri enraptured by the enormous beauty of the music. (One of the play's better jokes is that, in tone-deaf 18th century Vienna, only Salieri recognizes that Mozart is the infinitely greater artist.)

Shaffer is also fond of pithy national put-downs -- on the order of "Only the French would find that amusing" -- that get easy laughs but are essentially meaningless.

The play, additionally, has several too-easy characterizations -- Emperor Joseph II, nicely played by David McCallum, is a genial nincompoop -- that are used for redundant laugh lines, and the one-way conversations Salieri has with God become a bit precious.

Shaffer has written a new scene for this production, which he says is an attempt to move away from melodrama and to humanize Salieri. It's a meeting with the dying Mozart, in which Salieri reveals what he's done and seeks forgiveness, although Mozart is in such a sad state he doesn't comprehend what Salieri's talking about.

The scene doesn't accomplish much. "Amadeus" remains a theatrical, rather than a dramatic, treat, an evening that's clever, informative, admirably presented, but not emotionally compelling.

Illustrations/Photos: COLOR PHOTO - Michael Sheen, front, and David Suchet in "Amadeus" on Broadway.


Copyright 1999 Bergen Record Corp. All rights reserved.

ROBERT FELDBERG, Staff Writer, MUSICAL RIVALRY PLAYS ON AS DRAMA EXITS THE STAGE. , The Record (Bergen County, NJ), 12-16-1999, pp y01.

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