Skullduggery in the organ loft

Jabari Brisport (left), David Ingram, and Greg Wood in "Bach at Leipzig" at People's Light.
Jabari Brisport (left), David Ingram, and Greg Wood in "Bach at Leipzig" at People's Light. (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: July 16, 2014

Imagine a version of American Idol in which the contestants can sabotage one another in order to win and you get the gist of Bach at Leipzig, a thrill-ride of a comedy now playing at People's Light & Theatre.

But that capsule description can't capture the magnitude of humor and the multiplicity of events depicted in Itamar Moses' clever play. It's 1722, and Johann Kuhnau, the world's greatest organist and music director of Leipzig's Thomaskirche, has died without appointing a successor. A council invites some of Germany's greatest musicians (including Georg Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach) to audition for the post.

In Moses' fictional telling, contenders attempt to deceive, blackmail, slander, extort, or bribe one another. Some resort to kidnapping and wrongful imprisonment. It's not your kid's American Idol; there's no Simon Cowell to cow them into behaving.

At People's Light, six skilled performers turn it into a midsummer must-see. Moses differentiates each role nonmusically, making one a thief (the sly Jabari Brisport as Georg Lenck), another a philanderer (the remarkable Danny Gardner as Johann Steindorff). There's a naive dunce (Stephen Novelli as Georg Friedrich Kaufmann), a principled family man (Greg Wood, his timing never better as Johann Fasch), an overlooked and embittered also-ran (Kevin Bergen's Georg Schott), and a vicious egotist (David Ingram, marvelous in little stage time as Johann Graupner).

If you noticed that all of their names begin with Johann or Georg, well . . . that forms the basis of (too) many Marx Brothers-style jokes. Moreover, Moses structures the plot along the lines of a fugue, introducing a theme or idea and letting each role reenact it in variation.

Pete Pryor's quick-timed direction and the cast's talents let us laugh anew at each iteration, which become more ridiculous at every turn and culminate in a rollicking 10-minute swordfight (choreographed by Samantha Bellomo).

Moses' play is a little too self-congratulatory for its own good, and after the extended combat scene, the production struggles to return to any semblance of seriousness. But this minor misgiving can't detract from the two hours of fun, and this Bach will beat anything you'll see on a TV screen this summer, reality or otherwise.


THEATER REVIEW

Bach at Leipzig

Through Aug. 10 at People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $26-$46. 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org.

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