Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Visit

Photo: Joan Marcus
To watch Chita Rivera in The Visit is to watch a great artist at the top of her game, fully in command of the stage and fully realized in the performance that she's giving. Theater lovers should be grateful that, after fifteen years and a handful of regional incarnations, this beguiling, frequently chilling, and not entirely successful musical has finally made it to Broadway.

For one thing, it may very well be the last original Kander and Ebb musical to make it to the main stem. The brilliant team began working on the musical adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1956 play in the late nineties, and it was first produced (with Rivera and John McMartin) in Chicago in 2001. An Off-Broadway staging at The Public Theater in 2003 was announced, but never came to fruition. Ebb died suddenly in 2004, but Kander, Rivera, and librettist Terrence McNally continued to work tirelessly to bring this daring musical to a wider audience. A 2008 production at Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, led to further development and a one-night-only concert in New York, in 2011. The current production, now at the Lyceum, originated at Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer. It's been streamlined to a clean ninety minutes and directed with airtight precision by John Doyle.

In Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, Kander and Ebb proved themselves among the sharpest satirists in the theater. Their particular talent has always lied in wrapping biting social commentary in ebullient musical numbers, disorienting the listener. In The Visit, Rivera's opening number, "I Walk Away," ranks among "If You Could See Her," "All I Care About is Love," and "Where You Are" in its ability to use traditional pastiche to land a distinctive gut punch. She's Claire Zachanassian, the wealthiest woman in the world, who's returned to her impoverished hometown for the first time in decades.

Growing up, Claire and her family were isolated and persecuted for their gypsy ancestry. Now resplendent in a fur-trimmed white suit and attended by a mysterious trio of butlers in yellow shoes, she tells of how her father built the town's public toilet, which her mother wasn't allowed to use. As a teenager, she fell in love with Anton Schell (played, as an adult, by Roger Rees), who was forced to reject her--in a particularly cruel manner--while she was secretly pregnant by him. Revenge has long been on her mind, and upon her return, she lays out her terms: she will revitalize the dying village if the town agrees to kill her former lover.

Rivera's performance is so seamless, so completely actualized that even a week after I saw it, I'm still at an overall lost for words. I just want to gush about it and tell you to stop reading this and buy a ticket. Whenever she is center stage, you are guaranteed to feel that same electric thrill you felt when you first fell in love with theater, when you first realized that great art could have a profound impact on your life. Her performance itself is a coup de theatre, a brilliant whole made up of thousands of exhilarating moments and choices.

Rees is well-matched as Anton. At his heart, he's a character actor, and he brings that level of specificity and lived-in knowledge to his work here. His Anton is broken but hopeful, and both the thrill and the dread he feels upon Claire's return is plainly evident. His singing voice has was never his strongest feature, and it's withered even more considerably over the years; still, it tends to work for his interpretation of the character.

The Visit generally fails whenever Rivera isn't the central figure. This is no slight on the ensemble itself, which features such august performers as Mary Beth Peil, David Garrison, Jason Danieley, and Elena Shaddow. They're all wonderfully talented. Their material simply doesn't rise to the level of Claire and Anton's. Only a solo for the schoolmaster, beautifully sung by Danieley, questioning the morality of Claire's proposition comes close.

Even with its deficits, this is not a production to miss. Many of Doyle's recent productions have come under scrutiny, and I'm the first to say that I could do without ever seeing an actor sling a tuba again. (For the record, this production has a dedicated--and superb--orchestra). However, his staging here perfectly captures the mood of the piece, and often proves as unsettling as Kander and Ebb's best music. Doyle has never been a fan of applause breaks, and that works in the piece's favor here; the mood is only broken when it's staged to be, producing a necessary level of discomfort.

And then there's Rivera. Fifty-one years after her Broadway debut in the chorus of Can-Can, and with over a dozen leading roles to her name, she still manages to surprise, delight, and awe her audience. How lucky we are.

[Mid-mezzanine, TDF]

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