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`Bach at Leipzig' hits the right notes

Fine acting, staging and lighting make Itamar Moses' classically funny play at SCR first-rate.

October 03, 2006|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

It's not often that one associates rising young playwrights with mastery of the classical form. Not yet 30 years old, Itamar Moses bucks the prevalent trend of elliptical modernism in "Bach at Leipzig," his classically deft comedy drama now at South Coast Repertory's Julianne Argyros Stage.

"Bach" is set in 1722 Leipzig, a seat of culture in Saxony, just one of the increasingly fractious and fragmented Germanic states that will later coalesce into the country of Germany. The period's political factionalism is amplified on a more individual level by Moses, who uses an obscure historical incident as a jumping-off point for this funny, fiercely intelligent romp.

While echoes of war are heard in the distance, murmurs of rising dissension are becoming increasingly audible at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, home to a world-famous pipe organ. When the church's venerable organ master dies without naming a successor, a swarm of musician-composers arrives to audition for the post. Their petty squabbles soon flare into open warfare, complete with plots, counterplots and intrigues.

These pretenders to the throne -- or rather, the organ bench -- are all based on actual musicians of the day, some prominent, others understandably unsung. The most nimble plotter in the bunch is Georg Balthasar Schott (Tony Abatemarco), who has served in the Thomaskirche's trenches without distinction and now sees his last, best hope for greatness. Johann Martin Steindorff (Erik Sorensen) must snag the post or incur the wrath of his wealthy, autocratic father. On a mission of thwarted ego, Johann Christoph Graupner (Timothy Landfield) merely wants to assert his supremacy over a bitter rival. Then there's Georg Lenck (Jeffrey Hutchinson), an improvident trickster as adept at picking a pocket as crafting a canto, who is desperately seeking gainful employment on his fast track to the gutter. Finally, there's the unseen Bach, a dark horse who emerges in the play's final moments.

Soaring over the prevalent pettiness -- at least initially -- is Johann Friedrich Fasch (Stephen Caffrey), whose devotion to music trumps his desire for advancement. Or so we think. Shockingly experimental for his day, Fasch exalts the virtue of innovation over form -- a convincing argument we initially accept at face value. Then in one of the play's most gripping scenes, Fasch's knee-jerk iconoclasm is soundly refuted by Georg Friedrich Kaufmann (John-David Keller), a sweetly clueless bumbler who emerges as the moral center of the piece.

Moses' formalist intentions are made manifest when Fasch, temporarily confined to a prison cell, elaborates the musical structure of the fugue. During his explanation, the other characters bustle on stage and act out the various "voices" of the fugue -- a hilarious mime sequence that is a highlight of the show.

Thomas Buderwitz creates a sense of lofty, sacred space in his marvelous church set, while Maggie Morgan's costumes are perfectly opulent. Tom Cavnar's sound design, with its booming organ strains and flapping messenger pigeons, is also first-rate. But it is Geoff Korf's spectacular lighting that is the most memorable technical achievement of this handsome production.

Moses' repeated references to Moliere acknowledge his obvious spiritual debt to that French master, but without the oversight of director Art Manke and his uniformly inspired cast, his cleverness could have degenerated into a series of running gags. Fortunately, Manke's staging is a marvel of sustained elegance, while these gifted performers find the exact blend of innovation and form that make "Bach" resonate.


'Bach at Leipzig'

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: Oct. 15

Price: $28 to $60

Contact: (714) 708-5555,

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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