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Utah Shakespeare Festival stages passionate rivalry in ‘Amadeus’

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"AMADEUS," Utah Shakespeare Festival, through Sept. 5, Randall L. Jones Theatre, 351 W. Center St., Cedar City (800-752-9849 or bard.org)

CEDAR CITY, Utah — The Utah Shakespeare Festival's production of Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus” presents an enthralling yet uneasy look at an intense one-sided rivalry between two master musicians, and the actors who portray them give masterful performances.

For Antonio Salieri, being great is not good enough. He promised God that if he became a famous musician, he would honor him with his music and live a virtuous life. But though Salieri has obtained fame and renown, he feels betrayed when he encounters Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose musical talent surpasses his own — though Salieri is the only one who seems to notice — and who lives a life that’s far from virtuous.

The story begins with rumors flying that Salieri claims he killed Mozart 32 years prior. David Ivers inhabits the role of Salieri, who first appears as an aged, stooped and unrepentant sort of musical Ebenezer Scrooge in a dressing gown and wheelchair, defending his sins while feasting on sweets with a glint in his eye as he tells the tale of his hand in Mozart's destruction.

Then Ivers stands, removes his wig and quickly changes attire, and the appearance of age slips away as Salieri becomes a tall, imposing, respectable-looking figure with an earnestness and soberness to his presence. Ivers' transformation is impressive and is repeated and reversed throughout the show.

Playing the bright-eyed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is Tasso Feldman, who brings to the young Mozart a spirit of wonderment and childishness, as well as a certain obliviousness to both etiquette and the grudges forming against him due to his salacious behavior. His high falsetto laugh increases his obnoxiousness and sharpens the contrast when he slips into a mode of quiet concentration as he composes.

As impressive as the dueling pianists is Betsy Mugavero as Mozart's wife, Constanze Weber. Her character ruefully admits to her own silliness, yet Mugavero's performance is deliberate as she demonstrates her character's maturation and devotion to Mozart through their relationship's many phases, including richer or poorer and in sickness and in health.

Brandon Burk and Anthony Simone are Salieri's "Venticelli," or "Little Winds," and smoothly finish one another's sentences as they weigh and pass along the gossip they've gathered. Also enjoyable is John Pribyl as Joseph II, emperor of Austria, whose tagline, "Well, there it is," never gets tiring.

Gentle strains of Mozart’s works are heard throughout the production as the onstage Mozart composes them or as they are being discussed or performed.

Jack Magaw’s sets are simple yet elegant with their blue and gold tones and serve as resplendent picture frames for the actors in David Kay Mickelsen's gorgeous costuming, including elaborate wigs, beautiful and highly detailed coats and sumptuous dresses. With the attention paid to most of the coats and dresses, however, it's a shame when Salieri dons what appears to be a shiny, rippling poncho for a long scene near the end of the show.

Though the content of some of the scenes is inherently uncomfortable, such as when Salieri first inadvertently eavesdrops on a secret and sexually charged meeting between Mozart and Constanze, director J.R. Sullivan's decisions in the staging generally make sense and add to the story's impact. However, a gruesomely staged suicide attempt crosses the line and feels designed to maximize shock value rather than story.

In much the same way as Mozart's compositions, USF's passionate and impressive production of “Amadeus” lingers in the mind long after it ends. But like Mozart's music, some sections of this show are more pleasant than others.

Content advisory: Frequent language; mild sexual content and adult situations; and violence, including a man slitting his throat with a knife.

Email: rbrutsch@deseretnews.com