After the rather lackluster The Other Place, the usually metronomically reliable Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) comes back strong with Bach at Leipzig. If you enjoyed the movie Amadeus — and if you haven’t seen that film I can’t recommend it enough — you’ll revel in this jaunty, cheeky, fictionalized look at the cutthroat competition to assume one of the highest posts in the rarified world of music in Germany circa 1722.
With Bach at Leipzig, BETC extends its mostly unbroken track record of choosing highly entertaining plays to produce. As selecting top-end source material is the first step toward creating a laudable theatrical experience, BETC is to be commended for zeroing in on this particular play by Itamar Moses. A prolific playwright, Moses’ talent is also evident from his work as an executive story editor on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
As fine a job as Moses did writing this play, it takes a masterful director to translate words on a page to success on the stage. BETC co-founder Stephen Weitz may be displaying his best directing work yet with Bach at Leipzig. From his choice of a simple, static set that supports the actors without ever supplanting them to his pitch-perfect casting to the pacing and blocking, Weitz gets absolutely everything right.
After Johann Kuhnau, the reigning king of the musical scene in Leipzig, passes away, the greatest musicians in Germany descend upon the city in hopes of taking over his post. Johann Fasch (Sam Gregory) seems a frontrunner from the outset. Once the favorite pupil of the deceased master, Fasch is a progressive thinker who questions the heretofore unquestionable fundamentals of the music of the time. A sort of Salieri to Fasch’s pseudo-Mozart, Georg Schott (Chris Kendall) has labored for years in the shadow of Kuhnau and is now more than ready to replace him.
Johann Steindorff (Anthony Bianco), a lecherous, opportunistic nobleman first and musician second, seeks personal gain more than artful perfection. Georg Kaufmann (Jim Hunt) arrives as much to entreat Steindorff to stave off impending war between their two home cities as to vie to replace Kuhnau. A perennial runner-up, Johann Graupner’s (Josh Hartwell) sole desire is to finally finish first for once in his life. The field of contenders is rounded out by Georg Lenck (Michael Bouchard), as much a gambler and confidence man as devotee of the musical arts.
In case it went by unnoticed, all of the main characters are, in fact, named either Johann or Georg. This paucity of alternate appellations becomes the first of many running jokes cleverly scripted by Moses and ably executed by Weitz and his cast. The nimble use of language throughout Bach at Leipzig is one of its greatest pleasures. More than a few laughs come from miscommunication and purposeful misunderstanding.
As the competition escalates, the various Johanns and Georgs prove that they are not above blackmail, bribery, thievery, deception and kidnapping to attain their goal. At times it’s like Survivor: Leipzig as allegiances are formed and just as quickly dissolved. Surprise contenders appear, plots are hatched and crosses are doubled. Amazingly, amidst all this hilarious connivance the play also manages some moments of sincere philosophizing.
While every actor turns in a commendable performance, three deserve special note. I’ve come to expect excellence from Sam Gregory every time I watch him perform, and he does not disappoint as Fasch. I guarantee he’ll have you laughing out loud. Jim Hunt, who I last saw in a much more serious role, shines as the foppish, foolish Kaufmann. And Michael Bouchard nearly steals the show from Gregory with his ever-scheming Lenck.
Bach at Leipzig is a comic concerto. It’s a fleet-footed, pitch-perfect entertainment of which BETC should be exceedingly proud. Unless you hate all things musical, theatrical or German, you will thank yourself for taking in a performance during its short run. If you do, be sure not to tarry coming back from intermission. The beginning of the second act is possibly the single best part of the play.
On a related note, you’ll want to arrive early for Bach at Leipzig to ensure you can find two seats together. If BETC continues to enjoy the level of success it has been, I think it’s going to need to convince the Dairy Center to move it into a larger theater. Things are getting a bit too cramped in the Carsen.
Bach at Leipzig plays through May 18 at the Dairy Center for the Arts. Tickets are $19-25. For tickets or information visit www.boulderensembletheatre.org or call 303-444-7328.