"A discreetly lush score by John Kander and skillful lyrics by Fred Ebb."
In the opening scene of The Visit, the Kander and Ebb musical that has finally landed on Broadway, its gruesome heroine, Claire Zachanassian (Chita Rivera), explains her delay in returning to her hometown of Brachen, Switzerland. “The time had to be right for this visit,” she says. “I wasn’t ready. Neither was Brachen.”
Neither was Broadway. The Visit was rumored for a transfer in 2001, but then September 11 happened and the Great White Way was inhospitable to such dark material. Producers revived it again in 2008, but not until a revival at Williamstown last summer, with John Doyle (Company, Sweeney Todd) now directing, did the stars and finances begin to align for this particular stay.
But as long as it has taken to get here, The Visit still hasn’t quite arrived. An adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play, it has a discreetly lush score by John Kander and skillful lyrics by Fred Ebb, who died in 2004. But while Dürrenmatt’s play is a tragic grotesque, an uncomfortable allegory, this version refigures it as a sort of melancholy romance. With eunuchs and an omnipresent coffin.
And, of course, with Rivera, a Broadway grande dame, who has rarely seemed grander or more dame-ish. Rivera plays the world’s richest woman, Claire Zachanassian, who arrives in broken Brachen, represented by a decrepit train station, with an immodest proposal. She’ll give the town billions, provided they murder her one-time lover, Anton Schell (a seamy, seemly Roger Rees). Warms the heart right down to the ventricles, doesn’t it?
Dürrenmatt’s play has often been understood as a parable of Switzerland’s timorous neutrality in the second world war. In a note to the published edition, the playwright took pains to explain: “Claire Zachanassian does not represent justice or the Marshall Plan or even the Apocalypse.” Still, this version establishes Claire as both a Gypsy and a Jew and when the townsfolk raise their hands to vote, their ayes look a lot like a heil. But Rivera is very good at collapsing symbolism. Even as she plays very different characters, she is almost always her intense, imperious, sharp-edged self, and The Visit uses her to great effect even as it seems to tailor the songs and dances to her octogenarian abilities (which are still pretty impressive).
The pleasure in her performance and in Rees’s and of Jason Danieley in the small role of the schoolmaster eclipse the blurriness of the story The Visit wants to tell. But only for a while. Though the show runs only 100 minutes, there’s surely room for more plot and more emotional arc than it provides. And despite the omnipresence of a young Anton and a young Claire, sighing and swaying and occasionally screwing in the background, it can’t really sell itself as a swoony weepie, however nice the ballads, particularly as it’s in the more macabre numbers – “Yellow Shoes”, “I Will Never Leave You” – that the tone seems most confident. However fine the songs and the set, it may not be visiting Broadway very long.
Author: Alexis Soloski
“Fascinating and alluring”
Claire Zachanassian (Rivera) fled her dreary European town a disgraced, ruined girl, and she returns to Brachen a vengeful billionairess, planning to exact revenge on Anton Schell (Rees), the man who wooed and wronged her. When the old lovers reunite, Anton learns that Claire has a prosthetic leg and an ivory hand. “My plane crashed in Tierra del Fuego,” she explains. “I was the only one who crawled out of the wreckage. I’m unkillable.” Similarly nine-lived is The Visit, John Kander and the late Fred Ebb’s final collaboration, which has been kicking around regional theaters in various tinkerings since 2001. The version now on Broadway is the same I caught last summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival, and it remains fascinating and alluring, if finally repetitive and frustrating.
The source material is Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play—probably the first mistake. As a piece of postwar absurdism, The Visit could make for an interesting revival, but studded with Kander & Ebb’s Weill-and-vamp song stylings (however sleek and insinuating), it becomes a musical where the numbers retard the forward motion, which is, anyway, linear and predictable: Claire will have her revenge, and corruptible society will help her.
Great acting wouldn’t turn the mismatch into a great musical, but it also wouldn’t hurt: Rivera, of course, is naturally commanding and regal, but a better dramatic actor would squeeze more mileage from Claire’s mix of sadism and self-pity. Rees does well playing Schell as a husk of a man, but his Rex Harrison school of speak-singing drains power from the songs. Too underused are the actors playing their younger selves (Michelle Veintimilla, John Riddle), despite being onstage for nearly the entire show. At least John Doyle's staging features gorgeous visuals: Scott Pask’s looming, decrepit train station choked in vines, swathed in Japhy Weideman’s nimble shadows.
Greed and cowardice are laid bare in this inky moral fable, vividly evoked by yellow shoes and other accessories that appear and spread through the scenography like a golden virus. For all its flaws, though, you would never say the cast and crew of this often hypnotizing, eerie experiment were driven by fear or the lust for lucre.
Author: David Cote
The Visit is a five-time Tony nominated Broadway musical based on the 1956 play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
Starring Chita Rivera as Claire Zachanassian, The Visit follows the story of one of the world’s wealthiest women, who returns to her financially stricken hometown and offers its residents a new lease of life in exchange for the murder of Anton Schell, the man who abandoned her years ago.
The Visit is the historic final collaboration between John Kander and Fred Ebb, the Tony, Emmy and Grammy Award-winning songwriters behind world famous musicals including Chicago and Cabaret.
Explaining her longstanding commitment to the musical, Broadway legend Chita Rivera said in an interview with Variety: "It takes an audience many, many places."
More information at http://thevisitmusical.com/