Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Book by Terrence McNally; Directed by John Doyle, Choreographed by Graciela Daniele
Broadway, New Musical
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street
by Dan Dinero on 4.23.14
Tom Nelis, Chita Rivera, Chris Newcomer, and Matthew Deming in The Visit. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: Likely one of the most divisive shows of this Broadway season, Kander and Ebb’s unforgettable The Visit is a must-see for any serious fan of musical theatre.
Broadway musical theatre is constantly looking backwards. While this is often to its detriment, occasionally this fascination with the past somehow results in fresh and fascinating new work. Such is the case with The Visit, by the legendary songwriting team John Kander and (the late) Fred Ebb. While it certainly isn’t for everyone, there are many reasons to take the chance on visiting The Visit, not the least of which is that it stars the indefatigable Chita Rivera.
When Fred Ebb died in 2004, he and Kander had several unfinished projects. Their murder-mystery musical Curtains made it to Broadway in 2007, followed by the incredible The Scottsboro Boys in 2010. Although The Visit was first staged in 2001, complications due to 9/11 and Ebb’s death have prevented it from reaching Broadway until now. And thank god it is finally here – to my mind, The Visit (like Fun Home and Hamilton) is a valuable reminder, not only of musical theatre’s potential to be great art, but also of just how rare it is to see this potential reached in the risk-averse world of commercial theatre.
As in their previous shows like Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman, Kander and Ebb specialize in blending somewhat battered glitz and glamour with dark material and adult themes. And certainly, the balance in The Visit is weighted much more to the latter. Rivera plays billionaire Claire Zachanassian, who has finally deigned to return to her hometown after a lengthy absence. Attended by a butler and two eunuchs (she’s that rich), Zachanassian promises the townspeople billions of dollars to help restore their run-down town and ameliorate their miserable circumstances. She only has one condition: they must kill her first lover, the shopkeeper Anton Schell (Roger Rees).
Although they initially refuse, once the townspeople start buying the coveted yellow shoes on credit, it soon becomes clear where their priorities lie. What’s interesting is how this community is able to rationalize their eventual decision – how they tell themselves they are not concerned with the money, but with justice. And indeed it is justice, not revenge, that is ultimately what Zachanassian wants – or at least that is what she claims. Whether or not she gets it is another question.
It’s somewhat difficult to describe just how brilliantly weird (in the best possible way) much of The Visit is. Perhaps the first signal is the erotic dance between Young Clara and Young Anton, omnipresent yet mostly silent characters who shadow their older selves, much like in Follies. There is Zachanassian’s baggage – she travels not just with a whole mess of suitcases, but with a coffin as well, one that comes in very handy for later scenes. There are those yellow shoes that everyone wants – the striking use of yellow in this production is one of the most memorable, not to mention symbolic, design elements. And then there are Zachanassian’s sunglass-clad servants: her butler Rudi (Tom Nelis) and her two eunuchs Louis Perch and Jacob Chicken (Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer) who, being eunuchs, speak and sing in falsetto. More than anything else, this haunting yet debonair trio epitomizes The Visit’s artistic sensibility.
There are several other standouts in the uniformly excellent cast. As Anton Schell, Rees shows remarkable emotional range in the relatively short musical, and makes Schell’s transition from hopeful old romantic to resigned penitent not only believable, but heart-wrenching. Jason Danieley shines as schoolmaster Frederich Kuhn, the man who struggles most with the moral quandary at hand; his “The Only One” is a highlight in a score full of them. And as Anton’s wife Matilde, Mary Beth Peil gives a searing portrayal of a woman who has always known she was chosen not out of passion, but because of her respectability.
Scott Pask’s dilapidated train station, covered in gnarled vines and trees branches, is a powerfully evocative realization of the town’s current state of decay. Ann Hould-Ward’s wonderfully theatrical costumes are simultaneously glamorous and shoddy, and her use of the color yellow is one of the most iconic things I’ve seen in quite some time. Perhaps most amazing is Japhy Weideman’s lighting design; I’ve never seen light look as materially substantive as it does here. While I had some issues with McNally’s book (one example being the blatant exposition at the beginning), these were minor and somewhat understandable, given the desire to pare a complex three-act play down to a streamlined 95 minutes. Graciela Daniele’s choreography, whether in the rambunctious “Yellow Shoes” or the delicately visceral pas de deux between the young lovers, highlights, but never overtakes, the story. And although John Doyle is most known for his actor-musician productions of Sweeney Todd and Company, his directing sensibility, including his tendency to have the ensemble watch from the sidelines, is a perfect fit for this material.
But let’s be serious – the real selling point here is that The Visit is your last chance to see Chita Rivera star in a new Kander and Ebb musical. It’s musical theatre legend upon musical theatre legend – this is a show in which even Rivera’s standby (Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie in A Chorus Line) is a legend. Kander and Ebb’s score is an absolute treasure, and, as the glamorous widow who shrewdly manages to ensure that justice is served, the astonishing Rivera – who is 82! – compels your attention at every moment. In her final solo, as she looks back on her life, Rivera sings “What can prove you wrong? Love, and love alone.” Indeed, The Visit reminds us that while looking backwards often proves painful, it’s a pain that can be both powerfully seductive and exquisitely beautiful.
(The Visit plays at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 7PM, Thursdays at 7PM, Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $29-$149 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. For more information visit www.thevisitmusical.com.)