Ever since I missed the Scottsboro Boys when it came to New York, I refused to miss a new Kander and Ebb show. I am so glad I made that promise to myself. The Visit captures a dark story of redemption and possession, control and power all in a mighty 90-minute package.
Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected less from this musical theater team who’d been making musical theater magic since before I was born. Added bonuses: the book is by Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, Love! Valour! Compassion!) and the show stars Broadway legend, Chita Rivera, so this is an unbeatable combination.
If you’re not familiar with the story (the musical is based on the 1956 play of the same name by Swiss playwright, Friedrich Dürrenmatt), a woman (Claire Zacanassian, played by Ms. Rivera) returns to her hometown after decades away, becoming very wealthy and successful. The town is not what it once was: it is desperately poor and its residents are hoping that Claire will bestow her wealth onto the failing community. The one person Claire left behind was her lover, Anton Schell (played admirably by Roger Rees, who most American audiences will remember as Rebecca’s boyfriend on Cheers), a hapless shopkeeper who married and had two children in the years since Claire left the town.
In her youth, Claire was an outcast; a “gypsy” that was shunned by most of the town’s denizens. Due to circumstances that I won’t reveal here, she does not have fond memories of her childhood. She reveals how she has redeemed herself over the years: through gaining power and wealth, and from exacting revenge on those who had wronged her. Despite the past, she is willing to finance the town with billions of dollars, provided they agree to her demands, which shake the very moral fiber of the community.
Anton and Claire’s tumultuous, highly sexual affair is played out by their younger selves (played by John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla) through sensual dance and movement, and sometimes song. Often these plot devices can be distracting, but these “ghosts” mesh seamlessly with the goings-on of the play. The layers of symbolism were beautifully blended in this show thanks to excellent direction by John Doyle.
Ms. Rivera plays Claire with a bitter wit that confirms Claire’s inner pain and determination. Having never had the opportunity to see Ms. Rivera live, it was a real honor to see her perform. She is a monumental presence on stage. One of her shining moments is the pas de deux between Claire and her younger self. It was a beautiful dance that made my friend “hold her breath.” We watched the two women gracefully move as an ode to one another: older Claire reminiscing about her lost youth with younger Claire comforting her, knowing her aching. They almost caress each other as they move on the stage.
There were two standout voices in this show: John Riddle (Young Anton) and Jason Danieley (Frederich Kuhn, the Schoolmaster). Mr. Riddle first sings in the quartet, “You, You, You,” and his resonance soars to the rafters. I got chills as soon as his sang his first notes. Mr. Danieley’s standout piece, “The Only One” is an achievement in vocal and acting talent. As the Schoolmaster laments his betrayal of his friend, Anton, you feel his pain and regret through his powerful song; his voice is really amazing.
Claire’s eunuch servants – Louis Perch (Matthew Deming) and Jacob Chicken (Chris Newcomer) – bring an eerie presence both in appearance and voice. Dressed in head-to-toe black – with bright yellow elevator shoes and gloves – and white pancake makeup, they sing entirely in falsetto. Along with Claire’s lanky butler, Rudi (Tom Nelis), they strike disturbing figures who play a crucial role in Claire’s past.
No one is going to come out of this show humming the soundtrack; “You, You, You” is easily the catchiest number in the show. But I think about a quote from a recent interview with Sammie Willliams, who played the original Paul in A Chorus Line about what made Broadway shows different today than when ACL opened in 1975. “Shows were not spectacles. They were shows.” It’s about telling a story and the songs enhance that storytelling experience. It seems like an obvious thing to a musical theater buff like me, but not everyone goes to Broadway nowadays to see a dark and weird musical theater piece.
At one point, Claire stated a line that cracked the audience up, “Apparently I am unkillable.”
Let’s hope that Broadway agrees. The Visit officially opens on April 23rd.