The latest offering by the Walnut Street Theatre is Peter Schaffer’s speculation on the possible assassination of musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Rob McClure) by rival composer Antonio Salieri (Dan Olmstead). The piece garnered the 1981 Tony award for Best Play and the 1984 film adaptation took away Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham as ‘Salieri’).
Told in flashback, Shaffer’s tale explores 18th century life in the court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II (well-played by Greg Wood) where royal composer Salieri, possessing only mediocre musical gifts, does his utmost to destroy the the foul-mouthed, boorish Mozart, using his influence to thwart Mozart’s musical success at all costs. The focus of the story is Salieri’s secret loathing of the younger composer’s crude behavior coupled with utter astonishment at and recognition of the heavenly beauty of his rival’s music. This is the heart of the matter — Salieri is tormented by the divine genius with which Mozart has been blessed; he is consumed with envy in the face of such God given talent.
Rob McClure gives an energetic performance as Mozart, creating a highly likeable and believable character – his inappropriate behavior and body language brought home the point that he did not truly fit into the courtly life – his coarse language and childish humor are an interesting contrast to the ease and brilliance of his immense musical gifts. Upon being welcomed to the court he easily replays a march that Salieri has written in his honor completely from memory and displays his true love of his art – he is joyful when making music – delighting in the improvisation. His superior musicianship is revealed as he changes a few notes on the fly and creates one of his famous arias right on the spot. McClure continues to make the audience care about him as his character slides into poverty, illness and finally, death in the latter half of the play.
Dan Olmstead as Salieri does not equal McClure’s performance. His transitions from the elderly, wheelchair-ridden Salieri into the flashbacks of the younger court composer lacked impact; stronger physical choices in voice and body would have improved the portrayal and added to believablility. This is a long, play – and this character tends to be long-winded – this is not the fault of the actor, but of the author. As the Emperor commented on Mozart’s music having “too many notes”, one might comment that the play has “too many words”. Olmstead never quite seems to own Salieri’s monologues.
While Ellie Mooney as Mozart’s wife, Constanze, captured the girlishness of her character in early scenes, she lacked depth in later scenes when Mozart’s health and wealth are failing. Many of the other supporting cast members gave truly wonderful performances – in particular Peter Schmitz as Rosenberg, – and Ian D. Clark was a standout as Baron von Swieten – his acting was truthful and passionate. Salieri’s Venticelli (“Little Winds”), Anthony Lawton and John Zak, were excellent.
Director Malcolm Black paces the show well and production values were high with a cutaway set augmented by projections depicting the court and streets of 18th century Vienna. Period furnishings travel in and out on tracks, helping scenes to flow easily. The costuming is lovely and appropriate for the period. Though several of Mozart’s musical pieces were incorporated into the play, I did find myself longing to hear more…more of that music that would have helped the audience understand what drove Antonio Salieri, to an envy so deep, it consumed him.
by Peter Schaffer
Directed by Malcolm Black
January 18 – March 6, 2011
Walnut Street Theatre
825 Walnut Street