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Opera House Theatre Co.
5/6-8, 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15 •

‘Amadeus’ features (l. to r.) Zack Simcoe, Dan Morris, Jason Hatfield and Robin Dale Robertson. Courtesy photo.

What a year in Wilmington for stage/ screen adaptations! It feels like we have had a constant stream of shows that have been made into films: “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” “Godspell” and “Shadowlands.” Now, the highly acclaimed play and film “Amadeus” shows onstage at Thalian Hall, courtesy of Opera House Theatre Company.

The show follows the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (Zack Simcoe) life in Vienna, at the court of Emperor Joseph II of Austria (Robin Dale Robertson). It is told from the perspective of his self-appointed arch rival, Antonio Salieri (Jason Hatfield), the court composer. From the time of Mozart’s arrival in Vienna until his untimely death, Salieri guides the audience through the twists and turns of court life, and the pains of a personal struggle with jealousy, lust and hate. Everyone who has seen the movie knows that in the script Salieri believes he killed Mozart and confesses to his guilt.

Mozart is a down-right unpleasant and unlikable character on almost every level in Peter Shaffer’s script. We, in the 21st century, cannot know how accurate a portrayal this is, because, of course, we have never met him. But for dramatic purposes, Mozart is made out to be the most self-centered, self-important, self-righteous, rude, crass and unlikable competitor a composer could ever have. Simcoe’s portrayal of him is not what most would remember from the film; the famous obnoxious laugh is there but toned down to not be the driving force of the character. The real personal journey that Mozart is on—his great attempt to grow up, his struggle to find peace with his father and his abilities as a composer—comes to life wholly. Simcoe’s performance makes it clear that even jerks have depth and struggles.

Anyone who has known Simcoe in private life knows he’s the antithesis of Mozart: a sweet, kind, thoughtful person, who is as unassuming as an actor is capable of being. To see this character developed as a fully functional human being is quite the testimony to Simcoe’s talent.

The role of Salieri is a demanding one; it begins with him on his death bed, aged and frail. It journeys back in time to his prime of life and proceeds from 1781 to the 1820s. Hatfield’s ability to move convincingly through such dramatic age changes is stunning. During the first transition from death bed to early adulthood, the change is marked in his voice and his body; it took me a few moments to process the transition and catch up. Salieri narrates the show and his personal struggle with God and God’s love, Amadeus.

Taken as a whole, the entire performance is fabulous.  The pieces that build it are a honed craft. Hatfield’s big monologue, when he realizes the true magnitude of the gift Mozart has and the consequent rage he unleashes upon God for betraying him, is a good example. Hatfield does not give way to the easy choices of a young inexperienced actor—flailing arms and screeching pain. It is an inconsolable statement of no return and total betrayal between two men who should be above such unthinkable behavior: the classier version of “You Broke My Heart Fredo,” as it were.

The music is the real star of this show—not the live symphony that plays it but the power it exudes. After all, it is the music that hypnotized these people, not to mention its lasting impact on Western civilization. One would be hard-pressed to find even the most illiterate, unschooled philistine who has not heard the name of Mozart. To say that he is considered one of the most important composers is an understatement. The man left his mark.

Though the actors do not create the music live, the recordings are played with Salieri’s monologues overlapping and explaining the context. It evokes the power and the impact of the work. It’s also an inspired choice because it allows the audience to really enjoy the music without turning the evening into “Intro to 18th Century Music Appreciation Course, Section 204.”

The technical and design team did a fabulous job.  Too often these aspects of a production are only noticed when they fail to please. However, the sets, lighting and costumes all provide enhancements that make the performances really stand out. Unlike the film, the stage show was not written to be an opulent costume drama. Juli Harvey’s costumes are beautiful, right down to the lace cuffs on the men’s shirts. The shadow boxes for the back drop are a lovely detail which ties the opera and the characters together nicely.

One of the key elements of this production is subdued lighting, which conveys the supernatural elements of the show: Salieri’s séance before his death and Mozart’s exalted status in God’s eyes. The two follow spots are key to making the lighting design work, highlighting actors and moments that would otherwise have passed by the audience. Believe it or not, a really underappreciated skill is that of good follow spot operation. When it is bad everyone notices. Like most good lighting, when it is good no one notices because it blends seamlessly. That is a good analogy for Hatfield and Simcoe, too: They blend seamlessly.

This is Simcoe’s last role as a resident in Wilmington, after many years as a staple on our theatre scene. On May 24th he is making the big leap to Manhattan. Our loss is New York’s gain.

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