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A second-tier Kander and Ebb score is better than a lot of musical craftsmen’s best, which makes The Visit a welcome curiosity, even if it’s sure to be a commercial challenge. Finally reaching Broadway after almost 15 years of false starts, the show arrives in a bewitchingly designed production from director John Doyle that magnifies its alluring qualities and masks some of its imperfections. It’s an arresting vehicle for the indomitable Chita Rivera, who has stuck with the project throughout its troubled history, and she remains a uniquely steely stage presence at 82 — graceful, dignified and commanding.
The opportunity to see an adored Broadway legend in what may be her swan-song leading role will be the draw for the hardcore musical faithful; likewise the chance to savor the final collaboration between composer John Kander and his late lyricist partner Fred Ebb, who died in 2004. It’s unsurprising that American musical theater’s most Brechtian double-act was drawn down this dour road of revenge to explore the ravaged soul of humanity. But there’s no getting around the insubstantiality and rather arch misanthropy of the material, adapted by Terrence McNally from Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt‘s 1956 tragicomedy.
The funereal show’s shortage of tonal variation makes it harder to love than Kander and Ebb’s last new work on Broadway, The Scottsboro Boys, which was more provocative in its racially charged subject matter and more musically exhilarating in style. But despite mostly strong reviews, that brilliant production failed to find an audience. Still, even if the producers have a steep hill to climb selling The Visit, I’m sure I won’t be the only one glad to have seen this dance of death, especially in what will likely be its defining production.
Doyle is very much a presentational director and his style is perfect for the succession of processions, assemblies, testimonials and hearings in this overhauled version of the show, which was first staged in Chicago in 2001. He has also gathered an ideal design team to create the setting, a once-prosperous European town called Brachen, long since fallen on hard times.
Scott Pask‘s set is a place of forbidding beauty: a desolate abandoned railway terminal that reeks of decay, its arcade support beams choked by a tangle of dead vines and tree roots. The gallery roof is reduced to a skeletal frame, with Japhy Weideman‘s ghostly light bleeding into the gloom through broken panes of glass. Costumer Ann Hould-Ward dresses the deathly-looking townsfolk in baggy clothes caked in dust and grime, which appear even sadder once their illustrious guest, Claire Zachanassian (Rivera), arrives from Capri, resplendent in a fur-trimmed white traveling suit.
A native of Brachen returning for the first time in decades, Claire is now the richest woman in the world, having acquired and lost a number of husbands. Rivera is at her best as she outlines Claire’s path to fabulous wealth in song with a sardonic smile: “I married very often, and I widowed very well.” Her creepy entourage includes a butler (Tom Nelis) and two eunuchs (Chris Newcomer and Matthew Deming), whose own history with the town will be revealed, along with their former identities. They carry a mountain of luggage and a gleaming black coffin, which becomes a key prop, just as a casket provided the centerpiece for Doyle’s superb Sweeney Todd revival.
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Like the title character of that Stephen Sondheim musical, Claire has come back for vengeance. No sooner has the welcoming committee finished expressing their dire need of a financial benefactor than Claire offers them a 10 billion-mark endowment for the town, with another 2 million apiece for each citizen. Her condition is the death of the shopkeeper Anton Schell (Roger Rees), who was her lover and her only reprieve from persecution as an illegitimate half-Jewish gypsy of 17. His betrayal when she fell pregnant drove her away and into the life of a whore.
The sinister tone leaves no doubt about Anton’s fate, so the show becomes a waiting game as the townspeople overcome their moral qualms, buying up luxury goods on credit in anticipation of the big payout. That spending spree is the subject of “Yellow Shoes,” an unsubtle but effective paean to greed, symbolized by the color of gold. The passivity of all the institutions — government, police, church, education, family — is represented across the excellent ensemble, as each one bends to accept the grotesque mockery of justice. Particular standouts are Mary Beth Peil as Anton’s bitter wife, and Jason Danieley as his last friend, the schoolmaster, who has a haunting solo, “The Only One.”
The dramatic weak point is Anton. While Rees is a fine, sensitive actor, there’s something unsatisfying about the way his role is drawn. We get the brokenness, but little trace of the instinct for self-preservation that caused Anton to treat Claire so monstrously all those years ago. He’s too benign. Neither the actor nor McNally has found ways to illuminate Anton’s guilt as he faces being the cause of the town’s ruin and now becoming its twisted hope of salvation. Perhaps in the original play, which revolved less around Claire than Anton, those insights were clearer. But in a musical that spends a lot of time unearthing buried feelings, their absence is odd. It suggests that though the material is quintessential Kander and Ebb, it’s a less snug fit for McNally.
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Doyle and company access the mordant absurdist humor of Durrenmatt’s work, but the chilling social and political critique — originally directed at Swiss neutrality during World War II — is diluted in the streamlined show, as is the ultimate horror of Anton’s death. The big issue is one of repetitiveness, as McNally treads similar ground from character to character, without much complexity. The inevitability of the outcome means the show acquires only sporadic momentum. Even Kander’s score, with its lethargic but insistent Kurt Weill-style oom-pah circus rhythms, has a sameness at times. And while there are gorgeous moments as the ever-present youthful versions of Claire and Anton (Michelle Veintimilla and John Riddle) live again in sensuous dance, the stretches of romantic reverie remove some of the sting from the older Claire’s unyielding mission.
Few will be complaining, however, when Rivera, during “Love and Love Alone,” dances a melancholy pas de deux with Veintimilla, an elegy for unforgotten passion. The bones might be stiffer than they once were but the elegance and form are still mesmerizing. (Graciela Daniele did the dream-like choreography.) Rivera still puts a spring in Claire’s shuffle, sauntering around with her silver-handled cane in the ghoulishly vaudevillian “I Would Never Leave You,” as her trio of bizarre henchmen pledge their loyalty, with the countertenor eunuchs making that promise sound like a shriek.
One of the production’s rewards is the thrilling choral singing and exquisitely textured harmonies. But unquestionably, the reason to see The Visit even with its flaws is the star, whose brittle vocals cut like ice. Rivera’s history with Kander and Ebb dates back from Chicago through The Rink to Kiss of the Spider Woman, and there’s no doubting the authority she brings to this problematic but nonetheless fascinating musical.
Venue: Lyceum Theatre, New York
Cast: Chita Rivera, Roger Rees, Jason Danieley, David Garrison, Mary Beth Peil, George Abud, Matthew Deming, Diana DiMarzio, Rick Holmes, Tom Nelis, Chris Newcomer, Aaron Ramey, John Riddle, Elena Shaddow, Timothy Shew, Michelle Veintimilla
Director: John Doyle
Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Book: Terrence McNally, based on the play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, as adapted by Maurice Valency
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Music direction & arrangements: David Loud
Orchestrations: Larry Hochman
Choreographer: Graciela Daniele
Presented by Tom Kirdahy, Edgar Bronfman Jr., Tom Smedes, Hugh Hayes, Peter Stern, Judith Ann Abrams, Rich Affannato, Hunter Arnold, Carl Daikeler, Ken Davenport, Bharat Mitra & Bhavani Lev, Peter May, Ted Snowdon, Gabrielle Palitz/Weatherby & Fishman, Marguerite Hoffman/Jeremy Youett, Carlos Arana/Terry Loftis, Veenerick & Katherine Vos Van Liempt. 42nd Club/Silva Theatrical, The Shubert Organization, in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival
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