You've got to feel sorry for Antonio Salieri.
Rising from humble circumstances, the Italian musician carved out quite a career, which included a 36-year reign as court composer for the Austrian emperor in Vienna. His works were heard and praised everywhere. His students included Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and even the son of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Today, Salieri's compositions are rarely dusted off, his accomplishments hardly ever acknowledged. But he can count on fresh and none-too-flattering attention whenever a theater company decides to revive Peter Shaffer's 1979 play "Amadeus," which Center Stage has done to open its season.
Something of a sensation when it premiered — and again when transformed into a movie a few years later — "Amadeus" remains a potent concoction, more fiction than fact, that can deliver a pretty entertaining kick. It does so in the handsome, vibrant Center Stage production directed by company helmsman Kwame Kwei-Armah.
This is a big venture. A dynamic cast of 20 roams through Timothy R. Mackabee's terrific set, which fills every nook and cranny of stage space, spills into the house and, in a way, extends to the lobby. With a few tweaks, the design could easily do double duty for a production of Mozart's beloved opera "The Marriage of Figaro."
Of course, "Amadeus" is something of an opera itself, packed with colorful characters, events, motivations and, most famously, intrigue.
Mozart, the supreme musical genius, managed to enrich and advance every musical genre he touched — symphony, opera, concerto, string quartet, etc. He died cruelly young at 35 and in circumstances cloudy enough to generate abundant speculation.
One of the more persistent and most scurrilous tales told in the years after Mozart's death involved Salieri as his murderer. Shaffer ran with that notion to concoct a spicy drama that turns rumor into rumination over the nature of ambition and envy, genius and mediocrity.
Salieri believes he has made a firm bargain with the Almighty — a moral life in exchange for artistic success. The arrival in Vienna of young, rude and crude Mozart rattles Salieri's faith.
The older composer might be able to deal with the upstart's boorish behavior and appalling affinity for scatological humor, but not with the totally unexpected, divine beauty of Mozart's music. That's one sign from heaven Salieri refuses to take kneeling down.
If Shaffer plays fast and loose with history, he's onto something about human nature in "Amadeus," which is at its most compelling when focusing on Salieri's intense, internal struggles.
Bruce Randolph Nelson gives a sturdy performance as the jealous composer. He's especially effective at conveying the man's awe in the face of Mozart's art and fist-raising anger at God. Nelson also has a good deal of fun with Salieri's cynical asides.
Accents are not Nelson's strongest suit; occasional flourishes in Italian don't convince. But this is a persuasive, ultimately affecting portrayal of a composer doomed, as Salieri admits, to be labeled distinguished by people incapable of distinguishing.
It takes a certain nerve to tackle the role of Mozart, turned by Shaffer into a giggling, baby-talking braggart. The trick is to reveal something real, even noble, beneath the edgy facade, to let the artist within shine somehow.
Stanton Nash does so in one of the most confident, natural and thorough performances I've seen on a stage in this town. Nash charges headlong into the vulgar stuff — matched measure for measure by the engaging Kayla Ferguson as Mozart's wife, Constanze — and he also captures the vulnerability.
It's a wonderfully physical performance, nowhere more tellingly than in the scene when Mozart is presented to Emperor Joseph II (a colorful Kevin Orton). His body as trembly as the preposterous feather stuck in his wig (just one fun detail of David Burdick's imaginative costume design), Nash makes Mozart at once silly and sweet.
The actor also deftly mimes keyboard playing and conducting, and delivers lines in multiple languages with aplomb (not sure, though, why he and other cast members don't give the name Constanze normal German pronunciation).
The rest of the ensemble does generally telling work. The play feels long — I can't be the only one who thinks "Amadeus" has too many words — but Kwei-Armah puts the cast through visually engaging, well-timed paces (choreographer Paloma McGregor has ensured extra flourish).
Sound designer Victoria Deiorio has the essential musical snippets falling neatly into place. Michelle Habeck's lighting design can be wonderfully nuanced, but, too often, turns harsh.
This set deserves to be continually bathed in 18th-century candle glow.
'Amadeus' runs through Oct. 12 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.