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by Michael Portantiere

Time for a Visit to Broadway

  • Chita Rivera and George Hearn in THE VISIT; photo by Scott Suchman


    The Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia recently did some major damage to its own good name by sending to Broadway the painfully amateurish Glory Days, which closed on opening night. An excellent way for the company to fully restore its reputation in the eyes of New Yorkers would be to bring its superb production of the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Terrence McNally musical The Visit to town.

    As it happens, Circle in the Square -- where Glory Days had its brief, inglorious run -- seems the perfect venue for The Visit. The show is now playing in the mainstage space at Signature, which has basically the same three-quarter thrust setup as Circle, even if the dimensions are slightly different. As directed by Frank Galati and choreographed by Ann Reinking, The Visit could easily be adapted to this venue, simultaneously obliterating memories of its most recent occupant and giving Broadway a great new musical that would garner a raft of Tony Award nominations next spring.

    Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt's gripping play of the same title, as adapted by Maurice Valency, the musical is all about Claire Zachanassian, a tremendously rich woman who returns to the now impoverished Swiss town of her birth and offers to save it from bankruptcy on one condition: that the townspeople will kill her former lover, Anton Schell, who betrayed and humiliated her many years earlier. Kander and his late partner Ebb, who in such shows as Cabaret and Chicago proved themselves masters at leavening dark shows with wit, melody, rhythm, and general showbiz savvy, have pulled off that neat trick yet again. Much of The Visit is somber and/or chilling; but there are also some fabulous dance numbers (most notably "Yellow Shoes"), a beautiful ballad ("You, You, You"), and several songs in which humor momentarily shines through the general sense of dread that pervades the proceedings.

    One of the wisest decisions made by the creators was to establish the love that was once shared by Claire and Anton in "You, You, You" and other songs and scenes, including flashback dance sequences featuring their younger counterparts. (Shades of Follies!) Someone with no real understanding of musical theater might view these interludes as detrimental to The Visit but, of course, the opposite is true; the fact that Claire clearly adores and despises Anton in equal measure deepens their relationship. It also adds an extra level of suspense in causing the audience to wonder not only if the people of Brachen will do as Claire asks, but whether she might be moved to withdraw her demand for his murder. (If the woman were to single-mindedly pursue her monstrous goal without a moment's reflection or regret, The Visit would be a lot shorter but far less interesting. Praise be to Kander, Ebb, and McNally for realizing that we needed to see some love balancing the hate.)

    The show's one significant flaw is that there's far too much spoken dialogue before the first song is heard, and that dialogue is very clunky. But thereafter, McNally hits his stride, crafting a book that's a worthy successor to what he wrought for Ragtime and The Full Monty. My humble suggestion for fixing the first scene: Smooth over the exposition, then move some or all of the opening number, "Out of the Darkness," to the top of the sequence and frame it as the townsfolk's rehearsal of their ode to Claire, with a brief reprise when she arrives a few moments later.

    The Visit has always been a vehicle for great stars, and this version is no exception. Throughout her career, Chita Rivera's wonderful singing and acting have been somewhat overshadowed by her brilliance as a dancer, but all of her talents come to the fore in The Visit -- especially her skill as a dramatic actress, which has only rarely been showcased in the past. Looking like 10 million bucks in stunning costumes designed by Susan Hilferty, Rivera hereby scores the latest in her long list of personal triumphs. Hearn, an equally magnificent actor in musicals and straight plays, offers a characterization of Anton that combines the vulnerability of his Albin in La Cage aux Folles, the authority of his Sweeney Todd, and the humanity of his Otto in The Diary of Anne Frank. It's a performance for inclusion on any theatrical "best" list, as is Rivera's.

    The supporting cast is no less perfect. Mark Jacoby, terrific as Judge Turpin in John Doyle's production of Sweeney Todd, is even better in The Visit as the town's weak-willed mayor. D.B. Bonds and Mary Ann Lamb dance divinely as Young Anton and Young Claire. And though Jeremy Webb is a little too young-looking for the role of the Schoolmaster, whose desperate attempts to save Anton go for naught, his portrayal is moving and memorable. Other standouts include Jerry Lanning (the original Patrick Dennis in Mame!) as the Doctor; Karen Murphy as Anton's wife, Matilda; and Ryan Lowe and Matthew Denning, eerily but beautifully singing in falsettto as the two eunuchs in Claire's entourage.

    Derek McLane's set shows us the physical (and moral) decay of the town. Particularly effective is his design for the back wall, meant to represent the hotel in which Claire is staying but vaguely evoking the facade of a prison or a concentration camp. Howell Binkley's lighting is appropriate to the emotional temperature of the various scenes, from the warmth of the flashbacks to the fraught confrontations of Claire and Anton to the chilling finale. Thirteen musicians play the marvelous orchestrations of Michael Gibson and Larry Hochman, which call to mind the sound of classic shows by Kurt Weill, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, and -- yes! -- Kander & Ebb.

    Long aborning, The Visit was originally intended to star Angela Lansbury, who had to bow out for personal reasons. The world premiere engagement at Chicago's Goodman Theater in 2001, with Rivera playing opposite John McMartin, received mixed reviews. Fred Ebb died in 2004, and a subsequently announced production of the show at The Public Theater was canceled. Maybe it's just as well that the New York debut has been delayed, since, according to reports from those who saw The Visit at the Goodman, the extensive rewrites done in the interim are all for the better. This is now a great musical with one easily fixable flaw: those first 10 minutes or so of dialogue. Here's hoping that NYC is in the show's near future, and that everyone involved will soon enjoy the Broadway triumph they unquestionably deserve.

    Published on Monday, June 2, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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