Also see Fred's reviews of Fiddler on the Roof and Breaking the Code and Interview with John Cariani and Julianne Boyd of Dancing Lessons
Based upon the play that Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote in 1956 and as translated by Maurice Valency, the current version retains the book by Terrence McNally. The team of John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) collaborated to provide a score which is operatic and singular. These men wrote the theme for the film, New York, New York and contributed music and lyrics for Cabaret, Chicago, and many more shows. Kander and Ebb have interfaced with Chita Rivera previously, too.
The Visit takes place quite some time ago although the piece might work for different epochs. It is immediately apparent that residents in tiny Brachen, Switzerland, are poor. Claire Zachanassian (Rivera), a woman who left amid scandal decades earlier and has become quite wealthy, is returning. She now has an artificial hand and leg. When she was a teenager, her lover Anton (Rees) was, evidently, unaccepting when Claire became pregnant with his child. He made certain, through two witnesses and his own testimony, that she would not be assisted. The legal system having failed her, Claire departed, became a prostitute, had a number of husbands ... and amassed a fortune.
She now comes back to a very different scene: the town is nearly in ruins and the people are bereft. She will give away a huge sum of money in exchange for the death of Anton. Claire's supporters include two strange eunuchs (actors Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer) and her servant (Tom Nelis). In short, she seeks revenge. When the townsfolk first learn of her proposed bargain, they are appalled. Understanding that prospects will brighten, they reconsider.
Scott Pask's set design is spectacularly dreary. Large, overbearing, rickety/rounded beams of wood hover above all and dead vines attach to various pieces. This could have been a gorgeous train station. Its weight and import are implied. To those who attend: try to discern the import of the luminously glowing yellow shoes. Signs of better things to come?
The Visit, as a musical, began with a production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago which opened on October 1, 2001; work had begun on the show a few years earlier. The national tragedy put an end to plans for moving to Broadway. Fred Ebb passed on in 2004 but Signature Theatre of Arlington, Virginia, staged a presentation in 2008.
Williamstown brought on John Doyle to direct, and his choices for modification are excellent. He has pared the script so that running time for the production is approximately an hour and forty minutes without intermission. Doyle amplifies the presence of an attractive Young Claire (Michelle Veintimilla) and Young Anton (John Bambery). These two make for a handsome pair as they personify the leading characters back in the day when they were mutually attracted and romantically smitten. The skilled choreographer Graciela Daniele assists as lovely Veintimilla, in particular, flows about the stage.
"A Happy Ending," performed by a number of villagers, is spirited. "You, You, You" is a beautiful number presented by Veintimilla and Bambery. While she hasn't enormous range, Rivera is smart and proficient as she navigates her solo, "Winter." Rees has a fine singing voice demonstrated on "Fear." Rivera's vocal output gets stronger as the production moves along. She knows how to put across a musical tune.
Chita Rivera, on the other side of 80, lives up, and this understates the case, to her status as a legend. She has total command of this play and the house the instant she appears on stage. Hers is not an especially sympathetic role yet she is elegant in her white dress. Rees is most sustaining and disciplined in a difficult role. Rees was also Williamstown Theatre Festival's artistic director from 2004-2007.
The surrounding cast is quite strong. Actors Jason Danieley as Frederich Kuhn, the schoolmaster, and David Garrison as Peter Dummermut, mayor, are particularly effective.
Costumer Ann Hould Ward is a great asset. Lighting designer Japhy Weideman needs to accommodate many changes. Finally, one must nod affirmatively toward the musicians (10 of them) who deliver Larry Hochman's orchestrations as David Loud directs and conducts the music.
There is not anything easy about The Visit. One senses despair and decay even entering the theater and glancing upward toward Pask's ominous structure. It is difficult for an observer to "get" everything through one viewing. To be certain, Kander and Ebb give us some amazing and atypical music. Rivera, Rees and many others are superb. Then, there is the morality, or lack ofthe central theme which rests beneath the entirety of this musical. The visions are complex and sometimes difficultall of this within about 100 minutes of theater.
The Visit continues its run at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts through August 17th, 2014 For tickets, call (413) 597-3400 or visit wtfestival.org.
- Fred Sokol