Actors from the great Paul Scofield forward have found the challenges of playing a fictionalized version of real-life composer Antonio Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus daunting. And no wonder – the actor playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s envious rival is onstage throughout and delivers most of the dialogue; he must also be as believable charming other characters onstage as he is when removing his courteous mask and revealing the brutal man beneath to audiences.
In Blackbird Theater’s presentation Brian Webb Russell confronts those challenges and emerges victorious. He gives us a profoundly moving portrait of the “patron saint of mediocrities” which anchors their elegant and highly entertaining production.
Russell sounds so many clear notes with his performance, such as when Salieri defiantly observes “What use, after all, is Man, if not to teach God His lessons?” or acknowledges with despair that “…I looked on astounded as from his ordinary life he made his art. We were both ordinary men, he and I. Yet from the ordinary he created legends – and I from legends created only the ordinary.” When he cries out, it pierces the heart; when he shakes his fist at an Almighty he considers unfair the energy produced sends a shock down the spine.
That’s not to say Director Wes Driver helms a one-man show, of course. Russell’s fellow actors are virtuosos as well, starting with the man who plays the title role: Brent Maddox has much more than a great high-pitched giggle going for him as Mozart. Sure, he enjoyably reveals his character’s vulgar childishness, but the genius – and heart – that propel the composer’s timelessly beautiful music comes through too.
Amanda Card is just as engaging as Constanze. She takes us on her character’s roller-coaster ride with Mozart and displays as great a penchant for light-hearted moments as she does for serious conflicts in adding yet another fine performance to her impressive list of credits.
As the gossipy Venticelli (“My little winds as I call them” Salieri says) Evelyn O’Neal Brush and Brad Oxnam are a dirt-dishing delight; soprano Katherine Sandoval Taylor handles the characterization of ambitious young singer Katherina Cavalieri and her “scales and ornaments” with zest; Robyn Berg (Teresa Salieri), Kay Ayers (Cook) and John Mauldin (Valet) convey volumes with looks alone. And the time-honed talents of Ronnie Meek (Count Franz Orsini-Rosenberg), Billy Rosenberg (Kapellmeister Bonno), Phil Perry (Count Johann Kilian von Strack) and Brad Forrister (Baron Gottfried van Swieten) flesh out the socially and politically savvy courtiers that surround Emperor Joseph II’s throne.
Playing the drama’s superficial sire superbly is Michael Slayton (he’s also the show’s music consultant). Those who’ve seen the 1984 film version of Amadeus will recall the perfectly detached and droll delivery of Jeffrey Jones; Slayton’s “There it is” and “Too many notes” pronouncements (among others) are just as funny as Jones or anyone else could likely ever make them.
The remaining ensemble – Austin Hunt, Will Miranne, John Silvestro, Emory Colvin, Andrew Johnson and Leslie Marberry – serve vital functions as various characters and (along with their fellow actors) are instrumental in keeping Amadeus moving by bringing various pieces as well as period props by Ericka Hunter onto and off of Andy Bleiler’s marvelous split-level set.
That set features plastic sheets hung upstage which resemble giant hand-written pages of musical composition. Yes, music certainly matters in this play, but those sheets (credit Bleiler and Jacob Street) also help to underscore the inner workings of Salieri’s seeking-greatness-he-cannot-have mind.
Other top-notch contributions come from D.L. Freeman’s seamless sound design, which allows the exquisite recorded play of pianist Shelby June Flowers to sound as if it’s being performed by the actors onstage; beautifully-detailed costumes for this story that primarily takes place in the late 18th Century from Hannah Schmidt which are complemented by Sondra Nottingham’s excellent wigs; and David Hardy’s mood-shifting lighting design.
“Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art,” Salieri cynically states during Amadeus. That view doesn’t hold for Blackbird Theater’s current show since there is plenty of goodness – starting but not ending with Russell’s bravura performance – in the cast-and-crew contributions to this fascinating production.
The Blackbird Theater production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus runs at 7 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays – and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 17 – through March 23 at Lipscomb University’s Shamblin Theatre (3901 Granny White Pk.) and kicks off Mozart in Music City. The city-wide celebration of the composer in March and April also features productions of The Magic Flute by Nashville Opera and Mozart’s Piano Masterpiece by the Nashville Symphony as well as free concerts hosted by the Lipscomb University Department of Music and FiftyForward Music for Seniors. Full event listings are available at MozartInMusicCity.com, which is powered by NowPlayingNashville.com. To buy tickets ($20-$25 with discounts for seniors, students and faculty) to the play click here.
*Photos by Reed Hummell courtesy Blackbird Theater.