Review: ‘Bach at Leipzig,’ accompanied by lesser colleagues

The super-talky “Bach at Leipzig” is a battle among inferiors fighting for the same high position. In Leipzig, Germany, the greatest organist in the world has died, and musicians are hurrying to assume his coveted post as organist at the fabled Thomaskirche – Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, where music has already accompanied the services for about 350 years.

 

People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern is giving Itamar Moses’ play, which gets very funny in the second half after a mildly amusing first-half set-up, a spirited go with a great cast. All seven characters they portray did, in fact, audition for the Leipzig Council in June 1722 to replace the revered Johann Kuhnau at the organ. All were swamped by an eighth contender — Johann Sebastian Bach.

Moses, who has written for television’s “Boardwalk Empire,” builds his characters on their real-life histories, then tosses them into a fictional plot about competing connivers who’ll do just about anything to knock each other out of the race for the organist’s chair.

Along the way, there’s some first-class scheming and deal-making and, toward the end, some of the most deftly performed and comic swordplay in my memory, choreographed by fight director Samantha Bellomo.

There’s also plenty of glib talk about Lutheranism versus Calvinism and predestination; the competing musicians take clear sides on either innovation or traditionalism and, as would happen in 1722, link everything to theology. “Bach in Leipzig” is full of good stuff to chew on, but the ideas here are come off like cherry-coated medication – it won’t be unpleasant, but you’ll want to down it as quickly as possible. As a result, the play’s brightly contentious arguments – there are many – fly by so quickly, you have little time to savor anything.

Clearly, Moses put much effort into researching the real characters and the 18-century German philosophies he weaves into the script – a script that shines when whenever hijinks take over from polemics. The aforementioned sword fighting by almost every character at once is an example, and so is a jaunty scene in which one of the musicians (played by Stephen Novelli) is convinced that the revealing conversations he witnesses among his colleagues are really part of a play they’re staging just for him.

In one part, beautifully written – and delivered by Greg Wood to create verbal magic – a musician describes the construction of a fugue as we hear its development (from sound-design expert Jorge Cousineau). At the same time, the other actors comically mime the plot so far in a way that suggests that “Bach in Leipzig” is itself written as a fugue. It’s one of those stand-out moments you find when you don’t expect them – if you remember nothing else about the play, that scene may be imprinted.

One of the running jokes in “Bach at Leipzig” is that everyone adept at playing the organ is named Johann or Georg – funnier because it’s a fact. In addition to Novelli and Wood, the cast includes Kevin Bergen, who has a remarkable facility to act with his face, especially when he says nothing, plus David Ingram, Jabari Brisport and Danny Gardner – all excellent in timing and comic delivery. People Light’s associate artistic director, Pete Pryor, stages the play with meticulous attention to tone; the production’s intensity sits on a fluffy foundation, melding the philosophical bickering with the comic situation these ultimate losers have put themselves in. (In real life, it would have been unrealistic to call any of these accomplished musicians losers.)

Marla J. Jurglanis’ handsome costumes immediately take us back to Europe in the 1700s, and so does Roman Tatarowicz’s dark-wood setting – the wide entrance to the room that will eventually be occupied by Bach. Uncredited in the playbill is perhaps the most defining characteristic of the way this production looks – its elegantly styled wigs, in a different ‘do for each contender.“Bach at Leipzig” runs through August 10 at People’s Light and Theatre, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.

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