Imagine Peter Shaffer's Amadeus brought to you by the Marx Brothers and you pretty much get the gist of Itamar Moses' play Bach at Leipzig, which is in production at Rep Stage on the campus of Howard Community College through April 1.
The 1722 appointment of Johann Sebastian Bach as music director of the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig, Germany, was, without a doubt, the momentous hiring in music history.
It is not that old J.S. had been a slouch in his earlier gigs. During his six-year hitch at Cothen, for example, he had composed the Brandenburg concertos, the Four Orchestral Suites, his seven keyboard concertos, and Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, among others. He could have retired before coming to Leipzig and still achieved immortality.
But his stint at the Thomaskirche was a tenure for the ages. Religion ruled the roost in Leipzig as it had not in Cothen, and Bach responded with music that continues to define and inspire the Western religious tradition: the Passions of Matthew and John, the Mass in B minor and hundreds of cantatas, some 200 of which survive.
Also playing into the Bach in Leipzig story is the knowledge that organists were the rock stars of the 18th century German states. Legend has it that Bach himself once walked some 200 miles to hear Dietrich Buxtehude, another diva of the organ, do his thing at the keyboard.
All this is the starting point for Moses' hilarious piece that imagines what it might have been like when seven of Germany's most illustrious composer/organists gathered in Leipzig to compete for the St. Thomas post after the death of the venerable Johann Kuhnau.
As they come together, the inventive wit of the playwright takes over. Before our eyes these distinguished musicians become a mischievous melange of Machiavellian maneuverers, each doing his best to finagle his way into the post by outflanking the others.
However farcical the action, though, the play is a feast for the historically and theologically literate, as slapstick comedy (and "slapshtick" characters) give way to provocative takes on Lutheranism, Calvinism, Pietism, predestination and the encroaching rationalism of Enlightenment philosophy.
At the center of the hubbub is kind, temperate Johann Friederich Fasch, who comes to Leipzig to compete honestly, with faith that the best man will win. (If his name sounds familiar, it is because his Concerto for Two Trumpets was coupled with Pachelbel's Canon on the old LP that turned the Canon into a blockbuster hit.) Karl Kipolla imbues Fasch with an earnestness that grows on you as the composer somehow keeps his dignity amid the slinky silliness that surrounds him.
The foil for Fasch's trusting nature is sleazy, caustic Georg Balthasar Schott, the orthodox Lutheran whose talent for influence peddling may exceed his acumen at the keyboard. Schott's pronouncements on musical and religious matters are delivered by Bruce Nelson, whose rubber face and endlessly inventive comic timing steal the show. It is not a one-dimensional performance either, for the play's most moving interlude occurs when Schott, as an older man, speaks knowingly of the spiritual profundity of Bach's work in a manner reminiscent of Salieri's rapturous encounter with Mozart's Gran Partita in Amadeus. What a beautiful scene he shares with Fasch.
Another bundle of comic energy is rakish Georg Lenck (played by Alexander Strain), whose hyperactive brand of mischief makes you wonder how the composer found time to write anything, save for worthless IOU's. Strain looks young enough to be the son or grandson of most of his peers, but is quite something to watch.
Rounding out the distinguished ensemble are Matt Dunphy as a foppish, wildly libidinous Johann Martin Steindorff; Bill Largess as the delightfully clueless Friederich Kaufmann, and David Marks as the befuddled Johann Christoph Graupner, whose inane platitudes somehow nurture his penchant for contrapuntal harmony.
Despite some abrupt transitions in Act II and a script that could probably lose a scene or two, the verdict is clear. Rep Stage's resident director, Kasi Campbell, has crafted a fast-paced, wildly energetic evening on the Smith Theatre stage.
Rep Stage, the professional theater-in-residence at Howard Community College, presents "Bach at Leipzig," by Itamar Moses, through April 1 in the college's Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. A Thursday performance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. March 29. Information: 410-772-4900 or www.repstage.org.