Rock Me, Amadeus

Erik DeCicco is waiting to hit his mark. Seated among his fellow cast members as they do a read-through of the script for their upcoming performance of “Amadeus,” 29-year-old DeCicco has landed the lead role, portraying the doomed 18th-century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Peter Shaffer’s 1979 period drama blends fact and fiction in an imaginative telling of the relationship between Mozart and fellow composer-turned-archrival Antonio Salieri.

In 1984, director Milos Forman’s film version, “Amadeus,” starred Tom Hulce as Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Salieri. The film swept the Oscars and created a revival of sorts for the music of Mozart (1756-’91), who before his death at age 35, had composed more than 600 works and revolutionized Western music.

“It’s really a fairly dark play,” stage director Sam Fisher said. “And since it is really about Salieri’s exaggerated sense of memory, I’m kind of playing with that idea of making the dark moments really dark and the lighthearted moments incredibly light.”

Right now, the mood is decidedly light. The assembled cast and crew range in age from early 20s to early 40s and feature well-known and lesser-known players from the local community theater scene. Tonight, everyone seems both focused and distracted, thumbing through scripts, jotting down notes and taking swigs of water, coffee and energy drinks. They will be here for at least three hours, and most have already clocked in a full day at their regular jobs.

It’s the second Tuesday of the year and this is only the second night of rehearsals, which are being held for now in the main auditorium at The Foundation Academy, the private college prep and arts school located off San Pablo Road. Before the March 2 debut, the cast of eight will have spent two months learning, practicing and fine-tuning Shaffer’s Tony Award-winning play.

The mood is jocular, loose and, from the outside looking in, it appears the actors’ approach to the material owes as much to Monty Python as it does method acting. Free association and comments, however silly or random, are not only tolerated but seemingly encouraged by Fisher. The process is fascinating to watch: For every five minutes of dialogue, it seems as if an additional 10 are spent dissecting the minutiae of everything from an actor’s vocal cadence to how a character would feel trying to navigate the stage while wearing the awkwardly formal garb of an Austrian noble.

Sitting in a chair placed squarely in the middle of the action, the dark-haired DeCicco is unshaven and dressed in a black T-shirt, khaki shorts and flip-flops, his informal look just part of the rehearsal’s casual vibe on yet another unseasonably warm January night in Northeast Florida. Bill Ratliff, savoring his role of Salieri, is cracking everyone up as he tries on different accents. His character narrates much of the action in “Amadeus,” and Ratliff wants just the right amplification for the mindset of the 18th-century composer.

“You know that ‘Amadeus’ literally means ‘the love of God,’ ” Fisher laughingly points out. “You know Salieri must have just loved that.” As Salieri, Ratliff is at turns foppish, then angry, and finally inhabiting a mood that falls somewhere in between, as his character rails at Mozart’s defiance of both God and king as well as an apparent immunity from the consequences of doing so. “This play needs more swords!” Ratliff suddenly exclaims during his monologue, ad-libbing in an accent that’s one part nobleman and one part late funnyman Phil Hartman of “Saturday Night Live.” The company laughs. DeCicco looks up from his script, the pages covered in yellow highlighter markings and penciled notes. “Maybe we all just need to take more mercury?” he offers as a deadpan suggestion. Now the whole table is in an uproar, giddy from caffeine and exhaustion, surely the collective joy of doing what they all love. Fisher is grinning from ear to ear as he sits at the head of the table, his curly black hair tucked under his ever-present Miami Dolphins ball cap. “And now on to the next scene!”

Opening Lines
Born in Jacksonville, Erik DeCicco grew up on the city’s Northside out by Heckscher Drive, in a comfortably blue-collar home. His dad, Ralph, worked in construction as a roofing contractor and his mom, Kathie, was a real-estate agent. “I was born years before the Dames Point Bridge was even built,” DeCicco explains of a childhood spent in a once-rural area long-since altered by encroaching development. “And that required much imagination on my part as a kid … go figure.”

DeCicco is sitting on the outdoor patio of a coffee shop on the Southside during lunchtime rush. “I can actually remember being 6 years old and my pops snuck us up to the top of the [Dames Point] bridge to pee off of it before it even opened,” he says. “It’s one of my greater life accomplishments!”

Even though neither of his parents was involved in the performing arts, they took their children to a variety of local stage productions. DeCicco’s first recollection of theater is of the time when he was 5 years old and his dad took him to see “Brigadoon.” But it was experiencing productions of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” (“I can still remember how powerful it was seeing Judas hang himself onstage”) and then Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” that had a profound affect on the future thespian. “My dad liked ‘The Music Man,’ so it was an important bond between us. It still is.”

DeCicco was a precocious student and excelled academically, but his talents weren’t limited to his schoolwork. “I was always trying to entertain, I was always the class clown — 100 percent.” Part of his inspiration to work the room was admittedly based on one-upmanship. “I really don’t know how to describe it. I can just remember really being involved in the process and thinking that the people who are already doing this and think that they’re good — aren’t. And it could be a lot more truthful if I did it.”

When DeCicco wasn’t trying to entertain his teachers and schoolmates, he was heavily involved in the Boy Scouts — until he earned the Eagle Scout rank, the organization’s highest rank. “I tapped out,” he says “and that was part of a whole combination of things that pushed me into acting.”

DeCicco was in junior high school when he first appeared onstage, as part of the school’s production of the musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” “I was in the end of the ninth grade and this really cute girl was like, ‘Do you want to take drama?’ I said ‘yeah!’ ” And the role he landed? “I was asshole to the left.” While the female infatuation didn’t lead anywhere, DeCicco pursued acting roles throughout his adolescence. Soon every week was being spent taking voice lessons as he continued to try out his developing stage skills. “I was 16 when I really started getting heavily into this, and that is actually considered to be kind of late in the game for actors. So I felt inside that I really need to catch up and hone my craft.”

DeCicco had earlier thought of pursuing another career that would have also demanded strong reading, speaking and improvisational expertise. “I originally wanted to be a lawyer,” DeCicco says, but after investigating the sheer amount of study and voluminous research involved in that other performing art, he had second thoughts. “I can remember picking up a phone book in my senior year and thinking, ‘This is why I don’t want be a lawyer!’ ” he says, referring to the vast amount of knowledge he would have needed to even approach taking the bar exam. “I realized that there was no spark there for me.” During this same time, the teenaged actor appeared as Francis Flute in a production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an experience that confirmed his decision to follow the increasingly present muse. “I just completely tore it up and stole the show,” he says proudly of his turn as Flute and the famous “play within a play” scene. If DeCicco was ever at a disadvantage at being a self-described “late bloomer,” the following decade played out even more remarkably.

Act One
“All right, let’s dive right in,” Fisher yells over the din of assembled actors. It is now the third week into rehearsals and the actors have moved from the read-through to “blocking,” or plotting out their respective stage cues. The folding plastic table used in the previous weeks of rehearsal is gone, replaced by a few electrical cords and measuring tapes slithering across the floor, marking off boundaries between actor and set and, ultimately, performer and audience. The actors, seated in various spots along the bleachers in the auditorium, now seem much more comfortable reciting from memory instead of reading from the script. Along with DeCicco and Ratliff, “Amadeus” features local theater stalwarts Evan Gould, T.R. Hainline, Kelby Siddons, Matt Tompkins, Joe Walz and Jerald Wheat. While Ratliff, DeCicco and Siddons (who plays Constanze Weber, Mozart’s love interest, muse and bride-to-be) work out a humorous scene, the rest of the actors check and recheck their smart phones and laptops.

The scene they’re working on features Mozart playfully chasing the young maiden Weber in a lascivious and highly adult-themed game of cat-and-mouse, as Salieri becomes an accidental voyeur. “Can we have two boner jokes in one scene?” Ratliff suddenly quips, breaking character and cracking up the entire room.

While the three block the scene, Fisher paces back and forth along the top of the bleachers, watching the actors below. When they finish their dialogue, he sprints down to the floor to make a few suggestions and listen to the actors’ feedback. As Fisher talks to Ratliff and Siddons, DeCicco stares at the floor, tilting back and forth on his heels as he listens intently to the director. They take their positions and start again. At first, the change in DeCicco’s performance is almost imperceptible, which makes it all the more impressive as he alters his delivery with slight but effective nuance. Mozart chases Weber out from under a table and, in a matter of seconds, DeCicco becomes a de facto shape-shifter, transforming Mozart from a libertine to a petulant child, a sexual aggressor to a seated interlocutor stretching his legs and then suddenly on bended knee, proposing marriage to the now rightfully transfixed Weber. “Ten minute break!” Fisher yells and someone tries to find a bandage for DeCicco, who’s now bleeding after somehow skinning his knee during the scene’s charged courtship.

“When I was in college at JU, I discovered the script,” DeCicco says. “There is a monologue [in the play] that is one of the greatest things I had ever read. Mozart is convincing his royal patrons that he wants to write an opera about real people, not gods or heroes. And he is just pleading with them, putting his heart and soul into every word. It was one of the most ‘real’ things I had ever read. I knew I had to perform those lines someday.”

There is an intimacy among these actors that is born from a love of craft and the close-knit quality of the Northeast Florida community theater scene. Case in point: Fisher and DeCicco have known each other for more than a decade, having first met in the same intimate and encouraging environment that they’re now helping cultivate and sustain.

“I first met Erik when I was in middle school and he was in high school,” explains the 26-year-old Fisher. “Erik is just fearless and his passion is evident in everything he does. In the last year, we have done a lot together, and this seems like a nice culmination of our relationship.” This production of “Amadeus” is also a direct result of the ongoing rapport within the Jacksonville acting community, a society that boasts engaging seasons from the theater departments of area colleges as well as playhouses represented as far afield as The Limelight Theatre in St. Augustine, Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre (ABET), San Marco’s Theatre Jacksonville, Alhambra Theatre & Dining on the Southside and the Amelia Community Theatre in Fernandina Beach.

It is also history in the making: “Amadeus” is the first-ever collaboration between Jacksonville Beach’s Players by the Sea and the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. “We were approached by the symphony, as we tend to attract the finest talent and have an excellent reputation of producing high-caliber shows,” explains PBTS executive director Joe Schwarz. PBTS cast the talent and provided all of the artistic and technical elements such as the original set, costumes and lighting. “When two or more organizations work together, they have the chance to create something bigger than the sum of two separate projects,” says Schwarz. “The more we share resources, then the greater the impact we have on the cultural fabric of our city.”

Act Two
Across the waterway, in downtown Jacksonville, conductor Michael Butterman has been leading the symphony musicians through the melodic counterpart to the play. “The challenges are many,” Butterman says. “First, we will be performing in a concert hall rather than a traditional theater, so we will have to share a stage between the orchestra and actors, adapt exits and entrances, lighting, set pieces and so on to work with the physical layout that we have.” Second, Butterman and the symphony must somehow encapsulate the major and notable works of one of the world’s greatest composers to enhance the action as it occurs onstage, rather than distract.

Over the course of the two-hour show, Butterman will be conducting the symphony through “roughly 28 musical excerpts” of Mozart’s work, providing a kind of living, breathing soundtrack to the story as it unfolds. “In addition to famous moments from the ‘Requiem,’ which plays such a central role in the drama, audience members will hear the ‘Overture to Don Giovanni,’ the final movement of Mozart’s final symphony, the ‘Jupiter Symphony,’ and excerpts from ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ the ‘Concerto for Flute and Harp,’ the ‘Haffner Symphony,’ ‘Piano Concerto No. 20,’ ‘Violin Concerto No. 3’ and many more.”

“In a play like this — a play about music — the music assumes an especially important role. Sometimes it merely illustrates the various historical events that take place, but more often, the music serves as a kind of emotional subtext, reinforcing one’s sense of how the characters are feeling.”

Curtain Call
After graduating from Stanton Preparatory School in 2001, DeCicco was awarded a full scholarship to Jacksonville University, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 2005, with a 3.9 GPA. He carried a double major: a BFA in performance and a BA in English.

“Originally, I didn’t even want to go to JU, because I was 18 and just generally pissed off at the world.”

His dad then explained to his youngest son how rare it was to get a “full ride” to any school, let alone a private college with a strong theater department. “But, you know, one of the reasons I decided to go JU is that we went to an awards ceremony for all of the high school seniors, and without my knowledge, JU suddenly showed up and presented me with my scholarship package in front of the entire school. I was really endeared by that.”

A week after graduating at age 21 (“on my dad’s birthday, which was kind of special to me”), DeCicco was offered a full scholarship with an assistantship to the University of Louisville, where part of his education included a “life-changing” experience studying abroad in Reading, England.

“I get there and I’m thinking ‘I’m in England, Shakespeare, I have made it, yes!’ and I get there and the play that we’re doing is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” he says. DeCicco received his MFA in acting from Louisville in 2008 and returned to Jacksonville where he became a consistent, versatile and reliable presence in the local theater scene.

“Erik is an incredibly talented actor and vocalist,” says Schwarz, who has worked with DeCicco in productions including the contemporary rock musical “Next To Normal,” Horton Foote’s acclaimed comedy “Dividing the Estate” and even “The Full Monty,” the popular union-laborers-turned-male-strippers musical comedy. DeCicco and the rest of the cast dropped trou and went au naturel during the final, show-stopping number. “There is a passion for his craft and his attention to details that many other actors might overlook, but it never gets past Erik.”

DeCicco’s résumé reads like an overview of classic and contemporary stage works, with a strong emphasis on musical theater. He has appeared in 15 local productions, ranging from standard fare like “A Christmas Carol” and “Little Shop of Horrors” to edgier plays like “Urinetown” and the dark political farce “Assassins.” In just the last year alone, DeCicco was featured in a stage adaptation of “Reefer Madness,” “Phantom” and in a memorable turn as the homeless veteran “Hank” in the original, locally produced John E. Citrone-penned musical “Another Sign.” Recently, DeCicco was featured in performances for “Clarinda,” a musical based on the life of Scottish poet Robert Burns, at ABET and in rehearsals for “The Ugly Duckling” upcoming at the Alhambra.

Yet the blunt reality is that in theater, no one is getting rich and few are actually getting paid. “You’re not getting any money out of acting, so you at least need to get some kind of joy and event therapy out of it,” says DeCicco. Perhaps the most major development in DeCicco’s career is his recent acquisition of an Actors’ Equity Association card, which gives him union representation and a possible entry to even more and greater work. According to industry website, the current Equity weekly minimum pay for employment in a Broadway production is $1,605; for Off-Broadway, the minimum ranges from $539 to $957, depending on the size of the house. Locally, actors make even less, if they are even paid at all. Community theater is literally a labor of love. Fisher explains that now as a union member, DeCicco will get paid scale for his performance in “Amadeus” — the rest of the cast will be compensated only in experience and, hopefully, standing ovations.

DeCicco says that for now he is happy to be spending his time doing what he calls “half and half”: Days are spent teaching part-time at JU while nights are spent working, rehearsing and plotting his next goal. This May, he and his girlfriend, fellow actor-vocalist Aaron Marshall, are relocating to New York City. DeCicco and Marshall met two years ago and have been inseparable ever since. Marshall is an estimable creative force in her own right (“She is just phenomenal,” DeCicco says) with a résumé and local track record that make her the perfect foil for her romantic and dramatic counterpart; the duo finally appeared together in last year’s “Reefer Madness.” DeCicco and Marshall have more than a dream — they have a strategy. “I have been honing my craft and saving money for five years,” says DeCicco. “I don’t owe anyone any money, and I am giving myself a six-month window to just try to land jobs in that city.”

Whether in a musical theater smash delivered on Broadway or an edgy, experimental drama staged on the Lower East Side, DeCicco feels like he is ready. “I have known so many people that went to New York right out of college and just had their ass handed to them,” he says. “I chose to really take the time to focus on learning my craft, learning the art of acting, and also acquiring the skills, credentials that would also allow me, if need be, to teach.”

Most fittingly, DeCicco’s ultimate goal is to one day return to Northeast Florida and do just that: Return the favor and teach the craft that has been passed on to him by previous generations of class-clowns-turned-leading-actors. “I have to act every day. I have to stay in the middle of this.”