TAMPA — Almost everything about the production of Bach at Leipzig at the Gorilla Theatre is phenomenal. The script is witty and smart, the ensemble cast is as good as any you're likely to see, and the design work is superb.
It has only one problem, but it's so basic that it comes close to overwhelming all those positive attributes.
Bach at Leipzig is too long. It clocks in at right around three hours, and despite its considerable charms, it ends up taxing the audience's endurance.
The problem is especially profound during the talky, relatively dry first act, in which playwright Itamar Moses introduces us to six musicians — three named Johann, three named Georg — who are competing for the most sought-after job in Europe: organ master at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany.
Although it proffers clever wordplay and insightful monologues about music and religion, the first act seems directionless. It's long, and feels much longer.
Moses homes in on his story and characters in the second act, which turns into an enormously enjoyable farce without losing its cleverness and intellectual underpinnings. The play came to prominence a few years back when playwright Tom Stoppard took notice and touted it.
It's based on a true story of six largely forgotten musicians who resort to trickery, conspiracy and even violence in attempt to land that plum gig. While they connive, Bach (who never appears in the play) comes into town, almost unnoticed, and lands the job through sheer virtuosity.
The entire cast (Steve Mountan, Steve Garland, Alvin Jenkins, Kyle Porter, C. David Frankel and Dan Khoury, under the direction of Scott Isert) is hugely entertaining. Frankel is especially delightful as the dense but pompous Kaufmann. An elegant set by Allen Loyd, gorgeous costumes by Jennifer Cunningham, an intricate, well-executed sound design by Lynne Locher and lights by Keith Arsenault add immeasurable flavor.
The rewards are ample, in the production and script. A lot of people probably won't find the payoff worth the tedium of the first act, but those with an appreciation of quality theater, European history and classical music are likely to feel enriched.