WATERTOWN — In a flashback early in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus,’’ we see the moment when the teenage Antonio Salieri, religiously devout but also desperate for worldly fame, sends heavenward a fervent plea: “Signore, let me be a composer.’’
Salieri, portrayed by Benjamin Evett, does indeed become a famous composer, but one who is excruciatingly aware of his mediocrity. Moreover, he is thrust face-to-face with living proof that there’s nothing fair about the divine allocation of genius: An “obscene child’’ named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played by Tim Spears, has been endowed with unrivaled musical gifts. So an enraged Salieri sets out to wage a private war against God, with Mozart as his battleground and immortality at stake.
Weighty stuff. Yet a prime virtue of the New Rep’s robust production, directed with brio by Jim Petosa, is that it reminds us what a ripping good yarn “Amadeus’’ is, apart from the metaphysical overlay. In constructing this fictionalized tragicomedy, which won a Tony Award in 1981 and was made into a film in 1984, Shaffer drew heavily on the psychological thriller, the murder mystery, and the historical potboiler, with more than a bit of farce thrown in. Petosa expertly weaves together those elements.
Old-fashioned envy, lust, hatred, revenge, deceit, and overweening ambition drive the machinations of “Amadeus’’ — a lethal web artfully suggested by the central feature of Cristina Todesco’s set, a concave, crosshatched structure. Characters, including Mozart, periodically slide down its curved masonite surface. When we first see the young genius, he is surveying the action onstage through an opening in this sleek bit of scenery.
The most grating aspect of the film version of “Amadeus’’ was Tom Hulce’s depiction of Mozart as an infantile, giggling, arm-waving popinjay. I wish I could say Spears avoids that trap in his portrayal, but he doesn’t. Yes, Shaffer’s script depicts Mozart as a boor, but need he be such a cartoon? When Mozart begins his downward spiral, Spears’s performance gains in complexity, and he does eventually touch the depths of the composer’s despair.
But it is Salieri who commands our attention. Evett, who was cast in mid-March when Thomas Derrah, originally slated to play Salieri, dropped out of the production, acquits himself admirably in the role.
Salieri is a deeply conflicted, paradoxical figure, and Evett registers those conflicts and paradoxes in his body language. Even though Salieri occupies a position of stature — court composer to Joseph II, Emperor of Austria — he projects the insecurity of a man who, deep down, knows he’s a fraud. Even though he despises Mozart, even as he schemes to derail the other composer’s career and destroy him personally, he alone recognizes the scope of Mozart’s genius.
While he outranks Mozart professionally by a wide margin, he knows it’s a different matter when it comes to the music they create: If Salieri and Mozart have a rivalry in that sphere, it is the rivalry between a nail and a hammer. Evett communicates that knowledge, seeming to reel inwardly in a scene where Mozart dazzles and humiliates him by effortlessly improvising on, and vastly improving, a piece Salieri had composed in Mozart’s honor.
Small wonder that Evett’s Salieri often seems locked in a battle with himself, and at other times seems to flinch from the world around him. Only when gobbling sweets does Salieri seem thoroughly uninhibited.
Playing Mozart’s wife, Constanze, McCaela Donovan is excellent, both as the radiant, carefree girl capering about the palace with Wolfgang and later as a woman worn down by poverty but still possessing enough steel in her spine to intimidate Salieri. Strong supporting performances also come from Russell Garrett as the dimwitted emperor and from Paula Langton and Michael Kaye as a gossipy duo who keep Salieri apprised, with lip-smacking glee, of Mozart’s declining fortunes.
Frances Nelson McSherry has attired the entire cast in sumptuous costumes, making this a consistently eye-catching production. But “Amadeus’’ really soars when glorious music swells, music that could only have been written by one composer. Then we feel Mozart’s presence — and, who knows, maybe even God’s.