Center Stage opens season with revival of 'Amadeus'

Hit play mixes fact and fancy to explore Mozart and Salieri

  • Bruce Randolph Nelson as Antonio Salieri in the Center Stage production of Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus."
Bruce Randolph Nelson as Antonio Salieri in the Center Stage… (Courtesy of Center Stage,…)
September 12, 2014|By Tim Smith | The Baltimore Sun

In a letter to his father, a 25-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart declared: "I pay no attention whatever to anybody's praise or blame. … I simply follow my own feelings."

This self-confidence is just one of the revered composer's traits explored in Peter Shaffer's play "Amadeus," which Center Stage is reviving for its season-opener. A few other Mozart characteristics, including behavior still not considered kosher in polite society, also pepper this colorful mix of fact and fiction.

Although Mozart's frat-boy side was not a secret, it wasn't thrust into the public consciousness until Shaffer put it front and center. It's a crucial element in this drama about a rivalry between the genius Mozart and the eminent, but less gifted, composer Antonio Salieri.

The triumph of "Amadeus" in London in 1979 and on Broadway a year later led to a splashy film version by Milos Forman in 1984, which picked up the Academy Award for best picture. Stanton Nash, the New York-based actor who's portraying Mozart in his Center Stage debut, was introduced to "Amadeus" via that movie. It stuck with him.

"I remember seeing it when I was a kid, and liking it," Nash says. "It was a story about a musician, and I was a musician — I played violin, piano and French horn as a child. And it was about a guy who thought [passing gas] was great."

At 30, the actor still responds to the scatological aspects of the man who composed such indelible operas as "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Don Giovanni," not to mention sublime symphonies, concertos, string quartets and so much more.

"Playing that character comes pretty easy," Nash says. "It appeals to my own twisted sense of humor. I love a good poop joke. That allowed me to dive in quickly. I knew if I was going to get this role, there were going to be a lot of disgusting sounds and gestures."

Nash, who played Mozart works when he was young and still enjoys classical concerts, also responds to the aesthetic side of the man.

"I really like that Mozart never gave up, even though he did not get what he wanted professionally or personally," the actor says. "And because of that, we have his music."

In "Amadeus," Mozart is the up-and-comer attracting attention in Vienna at the highest circles of society and the imperial court. His ambition is repeatedly frustrated, though, by the intensely jealous Salieri, who has long been the most respected and influential composer in town.

An upstart, especially one capable of such crude, childish manners, is a little more than Salieri can stand.

"He wanted to be the conduit of God on earth," says Bruce Randolph Nelson, 48, the Everyman Theatre resident company member making a Center Stage guest appearance in the role of Salieri. "But he realizes he's not the genius he had bargained with God to be. His fight is so about God. It's a father-son conflict if ever there was one. It's about Salieri coming to terms with his own mediocrity."

Like Nash, Nelson gained his first exposure to "Amadeus" through the movie, although he technically encountered the play back when it was new.

"I went to see it the day I arrived in London and slept right through it because of jet lag," Nelson says.

As he prepared to dig into the play himself, Nelson listened to music by Salieri ("Some of it is sweet," he says) and sought a key to the man's nature.

"You have to find what is kind and loving and broken to give a fuller dimension to the character," Nelson says, "so that the evil is understood. When I am on my knees as Salieri, hands up to God, and hear swells of Mozart's glorious music, it is enough to make you weep. He's quite wonderful to play."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Amadeus," in previews through Sept. 17, opens at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18 and runs through Oct. 12 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $19 to $64. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.

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