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Musical mayhem

People’s Light presents Bach at Leipzig’

In
2 minute read
Making a list and checking it twice: David Ingram and Kevin Bergen. (Photo by Mark Garvin)
Making a list and checking it twice: David Ingram and Kevin Bergen. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Itamar Moses’s Bach at Leipzig, which is closing the current season at People’s Light and Theatre Company, is an unlikely theatrical cocktail: one part historical play, using people who actually lived as fictional characters; one part Shavian comedy of ideas, in which the characters discuss complicated concepts in a light, witty manner; and one part old-fashioned, knockabout farce.

It’s a delicate mixture, but Moses and People’s Light Director Pete Pryor have come up with a fine summer refresher that has some substance.

Bach at Leipzig is a comic variation on Amadeus, with six Salieris. Moses was inspired by an actual event: In 1722, Johann Kuhnau, the organist and musical director at the famous Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany, died. Musicians from all over Germany descended on the church to audition to replace him. The play’s characters actually were among the aspirants. From this seed, Moses lets his imagination run wild.

The men, who were illustrious in their day but are mostly forgotten now, are erudite. They discuss relationships between religion and music and between form and substance. They debate the need for constant innovation against the dangers of abandoning what is good in the traditional.

But, in Moses’s version, they are also greedy, wildly ambitious and ruthless. To get the upper hand, some form devious alliances. They resort to blackmail, poisoning, and backstabbing. Conspicuous by his absence is Johann Sebastian Bach, who for some reason has not yet come to the auditions and is missing out on all of the ridiculous competition.

There’s not a weak link in the production’s excellent cast.

Greg Wood anchors the play as Johann Friedrich Fasch, the proponent of progressivism and innovation. He makes the character reasonable when appropriate but carries off some very funny physical comedy when Fasch’s ambitions get the better of him. Kevin Bergen plays Georg Balthasar Schott, a Leipzig native who has been constantly rejected throughout his career. Bergen finds the humor in his character’s desperation and hostility. Johann Christoph Graupner, the musician with the biggest reputation, is played by longtime People’s Light Company member David Ingram, who wrings every bit of comedy from the man’s vanity. Stephen Novelli, another People’s Light veteran, is hilarious as elderly Georg Friedrich Kaufmann, who seems alternately befuddled and wise. Rounding out the superb sextet are Jabari Brisport as Georg Lenck, a gambler who intends to bribe his way to the position, and Danny Gardner as Johann Martin Steindorff, whose womanizing makes him a ripe target for blackmail.

Scenic designer Roman Tatarowicz’s attractive set depicts the foyer of the Thomaskirche, a stately backdrop for all of the farcical carrying on. Pryor keeps the mayhem moving quickly and smoothly. And at the play’s climax, fight director Samantha Bellomo inserts some clever physical comedy bits into the swordplay.

To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

What, When, Where

Bach at Leipzig by Itamar Moses. Pete Pryor directed. People’s Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. Through August 10, 2014. 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.

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