David Suchet gives a tour de force performance as composer Antonio Salieri in Sir Peter Hall's cleverly staged production of ``Amadeus'' at the Ahmanson Theatre. With the grace and agility of a gymnast, Suchet executes the emotional somersaults and twists of his character with supreme control and panache, providing the fire that is required to keep Peter Shaffer's work from being, as some characters in the play say about the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, ``too many notes.''
You may wonder, why bring back ``Amadeus'' after its initial, successful run 20 years ago and its Oscar-winning translation to the screen. But Sunday's performance shows that there is still variations on Shaffer's themes that deserve further exploration. Indeed, Shaffer did some rewriting (and presumably some rethinking) for this new production, which originated in London and is heading for Broadway.
When the play opens, the whispers are that 73-year-old Salieri is responsible for Mozart's death 32 years before. Confined to a wheelchair, the half-mad composer invokes an audience of the future to appear so he can tell his story. And indeed we do appear in a distorted mirror in the background as the lights come up briefly. (The background is ingeniously used throughout, whether with shadows or projections, or as a veil through which we glimpse another scene.)
Suchet, moving with ease between infirm old age to vigorous manhood, then tells of Salieri's abiding jealousy of Mozart's prodigious talents and his attempts to ruin the younger man's career in the court of Joseph II of Austria during the late 18th century. As the toast of Vienna, Salieri sees the young genius as a threat. As a young man, Salieri had prayed to God, offering his piety in return for fame as a composer. He is rewarded with acclaim and money in what is the music capital of the world at the time, but Mozart's appearance reminds him that he is, after all, just ordinary. He feels betrayed and rages at his God, while pettily plotting Mozart's downfall. Not that he needs much help, since the braying, scatologically inclined Mozart tends to offend most of the powerful figures in court.
Salieri's tragedy is that while he is aware of his limitations, which he is constantly facing with the arrival of Mozart, he is one of the few who can recognize that the boorish, childlike Mozart is in touch with some higher realm. ``He makes legends from the ordinary, while I make the ordinary from legends,'' he moans.
While ``Amadeus'' is often characterized as a conversation between Salieri and God, by the play can be seen as much as a psychological crisis as a spiritual one. The gentle, benevolent God that Salieri made a deal with earlier on is dead by the end of this ``Amadeus.'' What had given his life order and a sense of purpose has evaporated, and he is adrift in the universe, railing against the injustice he feels.
Suchet's Salieri is far from a hack. He is a clever, complicated man, and Suchet imbues him with the subtle shadings needed to bring him to life. Shaffer's too-often complicated, showy prose would ring hollow in lesser hands, yet Suchet - with a gesture or a pause, or by wrapping a word around an emotion - makes it believable, capturing the jealousy and regret that has run through Salieri's heart.
Matching him in intensity is Michael Sheen's Mozart. Sheen traverses the complexities of his character - from his infantilism to his brilliance, from his simple warmth to his profound suffering - with impressive assurance. And Cindy Katz gives Constanze, Mozart's wife, a balance of bawdiness and genuine caring that makes her a match for the composer.
Hovering above the play, though, is Mozart's glorious music. Without it, would ``Amadeus'' be - like Salieri - ordinary? If they were architects, say, one building showy houses while the other created cathedrals, would it be so compelling? Probably not, but there is basic psychology that is recognizable throughout high-flown concepts of ``Amadeus,'' whether in the hierarchy of the court, Salieri's envy, or Mozart's inability to conform.
All this, though, is filtered through Salieri, and it needs an actor who can bring out the composer's humanity to make it work, otherwise Shaffer's prose would seem stagy (``too many notes''). It still does, to some degree.
And that answers the question of why do ``Amadeus'' again. In this case, the best reason is Suchet, whose everyman demeanor gives the play an added resonance.
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, Music Center of Los Angeles County, 135 N. Grand Ave.
When: Through Nov. 28. Performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; additional performances 8 p.m. Nov. 22, 2 p.m. Oct. 28 and Nov. 11. Salieri will be played by Rocco Sisto at these additional performances: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17 and 24 and Nov. 7 and 21; and 2 p.m. Nov. 26.
Tickets: $25 to $49. Call (213) 628-2772. Online tickets at TaperAhmanson.com on the Web.
Our rating: Three and one half stars
PHOTO (1) Michael Sheen, left, David Suchet and Cindy Katz star in Peter Shaffer's thrilling and often wickedly funny ``Amadeus.''
(2) Suchet plays Antonio Salieri, who sees the enormously gifted Mozart as a threat.