‘Amadeus’ a moving portrayal of revenge, jealousy and religious devotion gone awry


Darkness. Low whispers are barely perceivable. The whispers (or are they hissing snakes?) undulate and grow. The stage lights come up, and an old man in a nightshirt and cap sits in an antiquated wheelchair. It’s Vienna, 1823, and we’re invited into the uneasy confessions of the self-described “patron saint of mediocrity,” a man disdained by God, Antonio Salieri. On this last night of his life, Salieri, played by longtime Lansing theater veteran Jeff Magnuson, gasps for the forgiveness of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the famed composer whom he purports to have killed some 30 years before.

As Salieri retells his debauched tale of spiteful jealousy, we travel back to the 1780s. Magnuson sheds his hospital clothes and seems to grow in stature as he becomes a young man making a deal with God. In exchange for a life of virtue, he bids God to make him a famous composer.  But as court composer and imperial kapellmeister to Austrian Emperor Joseph II, Salieri is immediately usurped by the crass, impertinent but divine genius of Mozart.

Riverwalk Theatre’s intimate, minimalist backdrop appropriately never upstages Kris Maier and her team’s opulent costuming. From the white baroque wigs to the colorful, sumptuous fabrics, the actors, with their courtly manners, personify 18th-century fashion and decorum. 

The production enjoys some standout performances by Taylor Haslett as the innocent yet shrewd Constanze Weber, Mozart’s wife, and the salacious Venticelli (which translates as “little winds”) duo, Laura Croff and Lauren Spadafora, as the chorus. These hired dandies feed Salieri’s insatiable hunger for slanderous gossip about Mozart. Traditionally played by men, the two women share a devious, foppish energy that alleviates the gravitas of the narrative. Also noteworthy is Michael Palmer as Cook, whose shocked yet comical scream appropriately conveys the dramatic intensity of Salieri’s suicide attempt.

With a disproportionate number of monologues, however, this play belongs to Magnuson.  Although his initial diction issues may have owed to opening-night jitters, when he relaxes and breathes, Magnuson settles into the role with moments of spontaneous excellence, railing against God with spittle and ire. His face morphs from privately embittered to publicly obsequious and then shifts to jaded and prideful, as he confesses to ruining Mozart’s life. He’s at one moment sweaty and grotesque in his excesses and in the next pleasing and urbane.

While I wish Lewis Elson’s Mozart were played with more savant than ninny, his pacing and comic timing break up the ominous energy of the play. As written by Peter Shaffer, the role can be one-dimensional. Wolfgang Amadeus (Latin for “loved by God”) Mozart, as a stage character, is incomplete without his trilling, thunderous, rich music to complete him. Unfortunately, the sound design does not help Elson with this. The music in the production is muffled and minimal. The business of opera is conducted in the wings. It’s almost as if a vital character was left out of the play.

Still, “Amadeus” should not be missed.  The rich dialogue, resplendent costuming and moving portrayal of revenge, lust, jealousy and religious devotion gone awry are guaranteed to enchant theater enthusiasts.



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