“I’m unkillable”. – Claire Zachanassian, The Visit
Life is difficult and unbearable at times. Maybe because of those who hurt you, destroyed you emotionally, used you, or after loving you disposes your heart like a piece of shredded tissue blown in the wind. In our darkest moments we all have those dangerous fantasies of destroying and seeking revenge on those people. Simply witness today’s world of constant war, racial tension, rape, spousal abuse, and loved ones killed by someone who wants his or her anger heard. Thankfully, most of us don’t go much beyond a quick flash of heated anger.
But what if you planned something down to the minutest detail, leaving nothing for error, and also had the resources to seek the type of revenge to satisfy your empty shell of a heart and soul? Well, that just might change the playing game of life.
That is what Kander and Ebb have created in their final musical, The Visit. For their source they used the 1956 play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Besuch der alten Dame. It is a dark tale of a very wealthy woman who left her tiny hometown Brachen, somewhere in Europe, then becomes rich, and returns to her birth place which it has fallen on drastic financial times. She offers them loads of money, but with one simple request. That in return to giving them money, they must murder Anton Schell, the man who stole her heart, virginity, and love, only to then abandon her. Does the village agree? You have to see the musical to find out!
Over the years I have gotten to know Chita Rivera personally and we have discussed The Visit at length. She spoke with great compassion on how much the musical means to her and how she sincerely wanted it to reach Broadway. It kept hitting walls, but finally reached the Lyceum Theatre, opening on Broadway in April 2015. So, what walls was Rivera talking about?
In 2001 it was first created for Angela Lansbury to open on Broadway. They would try it first in Boston with Director Frank Galati and Choreographer Ann Reinking. Lansbury’s co-star was Philip Bosco. But in 2000 Lansbury had to leave the production to stay home and care for her husband who sadly passed away later on.
Kander and Ebb called immediately their favorite muse, two-time Tony Award winner Chita Rivera, if she was willing to replace Lansbury. She accepted.
The musical finally opened, but in Chicago in October 2001, Bosco replaced by John McMartin. There were immediate plans to head to Broadway, but 9/11 changed everything. People had too much fear in flying after that, and being a very dark musical, it was a combination that forced the musical to delay its Broadway debut again.
Tensions relaxed some in 2003, and The Public Theater would produce it off-Broadway with Rivera and new co-star Frank Langella. But because financing fell apart, tragically it was canceled for a third time.
There was a closed workshop reading in February 2008. Then Signature Theatre mounted The Visit in May 2008 with Rivera, Galati and Reinking. The leading male role was again re-cast, this time with George Hearn.
In November 2011, Rivera starred in a concert version of the musical at the Ambassador Theatre, with her new co-star John Cullum and new director, Carl Andress.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival mounted the musical in 2014. After much rewriting, retooling, and endless changes, the musical was directed by John Doyle who turned the two acts into one without an intermission. Rivera again starred, and for the sixth time had a new leading man, Roger Rees. Also starring in this version was Jason Danieley, Judy Kuhn, Diana DiMarzio, David Garrison and Rick Holmes (who are all in the current Broadway version). Graciela Daniele took on the duties as Choreographer.
After that long, complicated, emotional journey, The Visit was finally rewarded with five Tony nominations, including Best Musical, Best Score, and a much deserved nomination for Rivera as Best Actress in a Musical (her tenth nomination!).
As I watched the show, I thought about what had to be cut to turn this into a one act musical. I feel that some of the discarded songs might have better fleshed out some of the remaining characters, as Doyle did strip the show of its much bigger ensemble. Doyle now has the supporting roles also become the ensemble, like a Greek chorus. And Rivera had two bodyguards in her entourage when she arrived back to Brachen. They too are gone.
Terrence McNally’s book connects the dots between music and characters extremely well. But there needs to be more explanation on the supporting roles, especially Anton’s family. The book vividly explores and fully develops the role of Claire, who is the major focus of the piece. His book displays in haunting overtones a dark, Brechtian world. It is a somber piece.
The score by Kander and Ebb is chock full of exceptional songs. Tragically, this was the last musical they were to write together as Ebb passed away in September 2004. Several numbers stand out within their wondrous score such as “At Last”, “I Walk Away”, “A Happy Ending”, “You, You, You”, “Look at Me”, “A Masque”, “Yellow Shoes”, “The Only One”, “A Car Ride” and “Love and Love Alone”. Within the compositions you can hear overtones of Kander and Ebb’s past mega hit shows - Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spiderwoman. The score also has a fine coating of Brecht and even Weill.
Director John Doyle, along with Choreographer Graciela Daniele, keeps the piece moving along at muscular pace. The staging and blocking is quite fascinating to observe. Doyle brings a chilling overtone to the musical with its avant-garde score and book, and observing his direction, he must love. Doyle boldly brings out from his actors’ haunting, graphically realistic performances.
Daniele’s choreography is simplistic for the most part, but works divinely within the score and book. This isn’t a big, splashy musical with glitz that needs big choreographed numbers. Daniele does have wicked fun in her dance creation for the number “Yellow Shoes”. Within the book are two younger versions of Claire and Anton that never leave the stage, always observing the action on stage like ghosts, and Daniele conceives haunting, powerful duets for these two. Daniele’s choreography has them formulate erotic, passionate dancing, at times sexually intense, which greatly aids in understanding why Claire wants revenge. It’s very Fifty Shades of Grey but from a different period. The most beautiful dance piece is the duet between Claire (Rivera) and her younger self (Michelle Veintimilla). It is powerful and heartbreaking that mere words cannot express. The emotion and body language these two women use to connect to each other is so moving it will leave you in tears.
Scott Pask has designed a decrypted, decaying aura for the set. It is a massive train station carved and shaped in an angle. It looks to be on a turntable, stopped midway in motion. There are two, long, angular floors upstage. Painted in muted tones with peeling walls, the entire set is covered in rough branches wrapped like cobras going for the kill. Above the set is a humongous circular glass roof with broken window panes, their jagged glass pieces sticking out; lifeless material hangs from the glass roof. Pask’s creation conveys the decay and financial struggle of the town. The set does not move nor are any set pieces brought in. The only pieces onstage are Claire’s big, black, slick suitcases that sit upon a cold black coffin. These pieces are used to create a variety of locations, including a car.
Ann Hould-Ward costumes the majority of the cast in caliginous, opaque tones, making them look grimy and indeed poverty stricken. J. Jared Janas adds great detail to the makeup for the citizens of Bracken, giving them a hollowed, skin and bones look. Combined with the costumes they transform the cast into withered, decomposed villagers. The only character outside the muted color palette is Claire. She is dressed in an exquisite coat and gown of blinding whites. Because of the set, lighting and the other costumes, when Claire first appears, it’s like suddenly looking into car headlights, perfect for her character. The gown is made of white soft fabric with faint hints of silver glitter; there is a voluminous, sheer chiffon outer skirt over the gown. Rivera uses the outer skirt to great effect on stage and looks every inch the legend. When she first appears her gown is covered by a gorgeous floor length coat of stiff, white satin trimmed in white mink. Claire is covered in jewels, her necklace an ornate cluster of diamonds with drops of blood red rubies strewn within them. Costumes for the leaders of Bracken are designed with solid subtext to show the audience who they are. The Mayor is in a frail, red judge’s robe trimmed in lifeless fur, as though the poor animal died around his neck. The school master/educator wears dusty, billowing black academic regalia that is falling apart at the seams.
Lighting design by Japhy Weideman illuminates superior craftsmanship. Shards of light pierce through the overhead, jagged window panes. A term I use is emotional lighting, where the designer actually conveys the emotions and subtext of the characters. Weideman achieves this flawlessly. Many of the dance numbers are slathered in various shapes, forms or angles of lighting that deftly displays the subtext and emotion of the music and acting. For “Yellow Shoes”, the actors are lit from the floor and sides, giving the company a garish demised look, even though the song is upbeat in tempo. That is excellent conflict of emotion and light.
The cast of The Visit is made of stellar Broadway pedigree!
Jason Danieley portrays Frederich Kuhn, the School Master and, at times, the real voice of reason. This incredibly handsome actor looks nothing like he does offstage. He wears thick glasses and his makeup design changes his facial features completely. Danieley is a tornado of tension, anger, and resentment towards Claire, her request, and his fellow citizens on their decisions and choices regarding Claire’s return and demand.
Danieley’s layered subtext is deep within his characterization. His facial expressions display raw emotion as to what is ticking inside. With sublime diction he sings one of the best solos of the score, “The Only One”. A devastating ballad that bleeds the pain and anger Kuhn feels. Danieley roars in anger as he sings in a commanding tenor voice how he feels. In a stroke of artistic vision, Doyle has Danieley sing around the cast who are sitting on the suitcases as though they are on their tombstones. At the end, he breaks down and sobs as he walks down the corridor of the first floor, a sheer ray of glaring white light splatters on him as he exits. It is a riveting performance.
Mary Beth Peil once again joins Rivera on Broadway. Both women were part of the cast of the magnificent Broadway revival of Nine. TV audiences know Peil as Jackie Florrick, the mother of Peter on the critically acclaimed CBS series The Good Wife. In The Visit Peil portrays Matilde Schell, the wife of Anton, or as Claire sees her, the demon who stole her first love. Peil and Rivera impart intense chemistry that swims oceans of hatred, anger, jealousy and resentment between their characters. Peil’s facial expressions speak volumes upon Claire’s first appearance. Matilde doesn’t show fear or cowers away from Claire, but holds her ground and husband close to her heart. The book gives both women some great moments between two damaged souls that refuse to let go. It would have been great if they had a duet within the score – just think of the possibilities. Nonetheless, Peil delivers an outstanding performance.
Others in the cast that deliver impressive performances include David Garrison as Mayor Peter Dummermut, who leads the company in an exciting number titled “A Masque”; Elena Shadow as Ottilie Schell, Anton’s daughter; Rick Holmes as Father Josef; Aaron Ramsey as Otto Hahnke; and Tom Nelis as Rudi, Claire’s blind butler.
George Abud makes his Broadway debut as Karl Schell, Anton’s son. This extremely talented actor gives Karl a sense of wanting more, not only in life but for his family. His connection to his character’s subtext is sublime. There isn’t much in the book for Abud to grab on to, so his acting craft compensates by creating a very memorable character. During the terrifying scene when the village votes on killing Anton, watch Abud’s facial expressions, it conveys so much emotion on his own personal decision. His performance is so commanding that he desperately needs a solo, though he does sing a wonderful quartet with Karl’s parents and sister in “The Car Ride”.
Matthew Deming (Louis Perch) and Chris Newcomer (Jacob Chicken) are Claire’s eunuchs. They are costumed in black, tailed tuxedos and bowler hats, white, harsh clown makeup smeared on their faces. They wear tiny sunglasses, and to add more quirkiness, they both wear bright yellow, 70s funk platform shoes. They do stick out in the crowd and you wonder why Claire would ever be seen with them. The discovery of how they came to be this way will send cold chills down your back. Deming and Newcomer have a fantastic duet, “Eunuch’s Testimony”, where both sing in an astonishingly highest range for a tenor. They have unique choreography assigned to them as well which they both execute with solid success. Both of them deliver first rate performances.
John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla are the younger versions of Anton and Claire. At the first of the show they have an incredibly erotic duet that is so red hot intense you can feel the walls sweat. Riddle is incredibly handsome, while Veintimilla is a raven-haired woman with a gorgeous face. They both make an aphrodisiac couple. Riddle’s powerful tenor voice is so transcendent to hear on stage. He does not have a solo but sings throughout the score, including a duet with his older self (Roger Rees) and his voice just pierces through the other voices. He has no dialogue so has to rely solely on his face and eyes for communication. Here is where Riddle shines even brighter. His stage presence is electrifying; I kept looking at his face as he displayed a myriad of emotions watching his older self, who has caused so much heartache and pain. As the older Anton sings of what he could have become, Riddle’s facial expressions show it all, tears streaking down his face.
Veintimilla, like Riddle, does not have any lines but uses her beautiful face to express every emotion. Her connection to her older self is dynamic; just a hint from her eyes is all that’s needed to know what she’s thinking. And as stated before, her dance duet with Rivera is one of the most heartbreaking, moving dance pieces I have ever seen on a stage.
Roger Rees is Anton Schell, the man who robbed Claire of her virginity and heart. Rees is a remarkable actor who made his mark in Broadway history with his Tony Award- winning performance in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. When Rees connects with the inner workings of Anton, it is magnificent. His solo, “I Must Have Been Something”, is his strongest musical number. His singing voice is quite good but he did strain a couple of times when he went into his upper range. He has some compelling scene work with Rivera that displays Anton’s heart, that shows regret and who still loves her. In all, Rees delivers a crowd pleasing performance.
Chita Rivera, at 82, is the last of the great Broadway legends to ever grace a stage. She is still a striking, beautiful woman with a lithe body. She has created some of the most iconic roles on Broadway – Anita in West Side Story, Velma Kelly in Chicago, Aurora in Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Rosie in Bye, Bye Birdie, and the list goes on and on. She has two Tonys, earned ten nominations, and is the first Latin in history to receive the Kennedy Honors Award. She was also presented the Medal of Freedom Award by President Obama.
There is simply no one like Rivera. She is that rare gem that glitters and shines brighter than anyone else. She rightfully earned the title of one of the true legends of the Great White Way. She always says she’s a dancer first and has worked with the masters of choreography such as Robbins and Fosse. In The Visit, she has to rely mainly on her acting. She stretches those acting muscles extraordinarily, and hers is a performance so compelling, it’s like nothing I’ve seen her do before. Her work astounds me in the musical she has been connected to for ten years.
When she makes her entrance, she walks through the train corridor straight to center stage. The audience erupted in ear shattering, thunderous applause that lasted several minutes. She stood there, taking it all in. It is a moment I’ll never forget.
Rivera uses facial expressions like an elegant, continuously moving, live painting. Her characterization seeps through her eyes, body position and movement. Claire has delicious bon-bons of cruel, one-line zingers flung (with regal class of course!) at the citizens of Bracken. Rivera always possesses impeccable comedic timing, pace, and delivery. As Claire, she relishes in her verbal lashings on the people who made her flee her birth home.
Claire has a fake leg and arm due to a horrific accident. Rivera will floor you with her commitment as an actress to never lose Claire’s rigid body movements. Even while dancing or sitting, her right leg stays frozen or protrudes like some foreign attachment. As an actress who knows her arc and character, she constantly adjusts her billowing chiffon skirt over her leg. Claire may be rich and powerful but her leg continues to humiliate her.
The role carries the bulk of the score, with ten songs assigned to her, and Rivera never once disappoints. They are a pastiche of up tempo songs - a vaudeville themed number, some hilarious songs with great comedic lyrics, and devastating ballads that just leave you in pieces. Rivera conquers every one of them like the pro she is. Some of her most memorable numbers are “I Walk Away”, “You, You, You”, “Look at Me”, “Winter”, and the tour de force of dance and emotion, “Love and Love Alone”. That oh so familiar Rivera voice is still there, singing with great strength and volume. The role of Claire is easily one of the greatest performances Rivera has ever given in a Broadway musical.
The Visit is certainly not the usual Broadway musical. Instead of relying on all the pretty costumes, dancing and happy songs, the musical forces you to go deep into your soul and join Claire on her journey. It is not a pretty one, but that is what makes this musical so enthralling.
The Visit is the musical that should be at the very top of your to do list when you go to New York City. It has some of the best Broadway talent on its stage. It has an eclectic, never heard before Kander and Ebb score. But it’s mainly to see one of the greatest living theater legends at her very best. It has been reported that this will be Rivera’s final role and Broadway musical. If that’s true, you will regret forever as a lover of musical theater if you don’t see this consummate, tour de force performance from a spectacular superstar.
When Claire appears to the villagers, one of them states they are surprised she is still alive and has returned home. With the perfect comedic pause, Rivera turns to the audience, and with a slight smirk on that alluring, hypnotic face, she replies back “I’m unkillable”. The audience in complete unison broke into deafening applause, whistles, and shouts of “Brava!”. That’s how revered and beloved Chita Rivera is to the theater world. And she is damn right, she is both unkillable and unstoppable.
Mr. Garcia's review also appears at http://thecolumnawards.org/columnonline/review/05-13-2015_THE-VISIT/