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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Vienna is a city of slander— Salieri
Robert Cuccioli as Salieri
In his long but absorbing play, Peter Shaffer speculates craftily on the possible murder of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by fellow composer Antonio Salieri. It is less a look into the distressed life of the brilliant title character (the "Beloved of God,") than a cunning examination into the devious mind of his arch rival ("the patron saint of mediocrity,").

This production, under the fine direction of Joe Discher for the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, is enabled principally by the excellence of its two lead performers. A stunningly wry performance by Robert Cuccioli as Salieri is contrasted beautifully with the impish performance given by Jordon Coughtry, as Mozart. First produced on Broadway in 1980 under the direction of Peter Hall, Amadeus provocatively puts on display for our amusement the differences between a genius and his merely competent rival. The success of the play virtually rests on Salieri's self-incriminating affectations as a meticulous jealous plotter and the reckless behavior of the naìve and incorrigible young Mozart.

Apparently and according to the playwright, Salieri's major claim to fame was his attempt to stifle Mozart's progress and literally destroy him. In Cuccioli's charge, Salieri's pitiable envy is clearly seen as justified. As the plot spins in flashback style, Cuccioli affects a most astonishing transformation from a decrepit semi-invalid with a noticeably disintegrating voice into an erect and rather persuasive young man full of arrogance and disdainful insouciance.

It is for Salieri to settle the score (pardon the pun) and to relive memories of the ten frustrating years he was in conflict not only with the imposing greatness of the young Mozart, but also with the injustice that he feels God has bestowed upon him. Cuccioli, who may be most renowned as the title characters in the musical Jekyll and Hyde, has also been afforded many opportunities by the Shakespeare Theater to tackle major roles in the classical repertory. Salieri is one of his best roles. As we see him take the official court composer to Joseph II on a path of psychological erosion,. Cuccioli certainly makes us empathize with him as he witnesses the implanted musical divinity of his rival threaten and ultimately transcend his own lackluster contributions.

As this juncture, we are well prepared for a hyperactive Mozart, whose crude, tasteless and impetuous behavior doesn't seem to impede his musical progress. In Coughtry's hyper active performance with a penchant for giggling, we can also clearly see the veil of sadness that hangs over this impetuous youth as well as the often painfully unsophisticated state of Mozart's personality. As the playwright makes clear, the foul-mouthed, crudely mannered young man was as outspoken and socially unacceptable as he was incomparable as a musician. His inability to contain himself is also demonstrated by his flair for the most alarmingly garish attire ever to be attributed to a gentleman of the 18th century (courtesy of costume designer Maggie Dick).

Shaffer's high-minded documentation of the disintegration of genius at the hands of mediocrity can be rather dreary going. That the play tries valiantly to make us care who does what to whom and why seems like a reasonable objective. At its best, this object is reached in fits and spurts, mainly to do with our interest in Mozart recklessly transcending the limitations of his peers, and our perverse interest in Salieri's destructive machinations. In this impressively detailed production, the years and scenes are vividly chronicled, even if some seem like recapitulations of what we've just seen.

The flashback memories from the mind of a hack court composer at the court of Vienna's Emperor Joseph II (an amusing portrayal by Mark H. Dold), remains as long-winded as I remember it to be, and just too darn long at a bit more than three hours. The large and very fine supporting cast, including a feisty Tricia Paoluccio as Mozart's playfully kittenish wife and Greg Jackson and Patrick Toon as the gossipy "Venticelli, ," deport themselves with finesse through Dick Block's ornately framed setting replete with a glittering chandelier, flickering sconces, a few pieces of period furnishings and, of course, a piano.

For whatever it is worth, this production is more excitingly conceived and performed than was the Broadway revival in 1999. While Shaffer's play is more significantly Salieri than it is mostly Mozart, it, nevertheless, reveals more than a few insights into this fascinating historical rivalry. And with apologies to the sentiments of Joseph II, Emperor of Austria, allow me to also say, "Well, there it is. ,"

By Peter Shaffer Directed by Joe Discher
Cast: Robert Cuccioli, Jordan Coughtry, Tricia Paoluccio, Mark H. Dold, John Little, Colin McPhillamy, Daren Kelly, Greg Jackson, Patrick Toon, Tom Robenolt, Robert Hock, John Barker, Todd Quick, Robyn Berg, Katie Favel, Tom Robenolt, Christopher Payseur, Mary Trotter.
Set Designer: Dick Block
Costume Designer: Maggie Dick
Lighting Designer: Matthew Adelson
Sound Designer: Richard M. Dionne
Running Time: 3 hours including intermission
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, Main Stage: F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Ave. (at Lancaster Rd.), Madison NJ (on the campus of Drew University). (973) 408 5600
Tickets: ($38 - $53)
Opened Saturday 05/31/08. Ends 06/22/08
Performances: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 PM; Thursday Saturdays at 8 PM; Sundays at 7 PM; Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on performance 05/21/08
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