Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 23, 2015
The Visit Book by Terrence McNally. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the Play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt as adapted by Maurice Valency. Directed by John Doyle. Choreographed by Graciela Daniele. Music Direction, vocal and dance arrangements by David Loud. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by J. Jared Janas. Cast: Chita Rivera, Roger Rees, with Jason Daniely, David Garrison, Mary Beth Peil, George Abud, Matthew Deming, Diana DiMarzio, Rick Holmes, Tom Nelis, Chris Newcomer, Aaron Ramey, John Riddle, Elena Shaddow, Timothy Shew, Michelle Vientimilla, Matt Dengler, Ken Krugman, Emily Mechler.
Of course, there are limits to what any work can bear, and The Visit, which has been directed by John Doyle, exceeds them far more often than it surmounts them. Logic would say this shouldn't be the case, given that the musical has been in the works on and off since it premiered in Chicago in 2001 with the needs-no-introduction star who's now brought it to Broadway, Chita Rivera. Even Ebb's death three years later couldn't deter it, and a 2008 production at the Signature Theatre in Virginia kept it alive and kicking until this version landed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer. But the problem isn't that not enough time has been expended on making this work — it's that it's been grossly misconceived from the get-go.
Nearly every Kander-and-Ebb outing has looked at life as an extension of the universe's reigning eternal force, performance, whether the biggest hits (Cabaret, Chicago), more modest successes (Zorba, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Curtains), outright flops (70, Girls, 70, The Rink, Steel Pier, The Scottsboro Boys), star vehicles (The Act, Woman of the Year), and probably several I've neglected. By fusing the razzle-dazzle of show with the giving-it-the-business characteristic of life as we know it, the writers have examined, from seemingly every possible angle, what it means when fantasy irrupts into reality and threatens to take over outright.
But what's right in shows about nightclub singers, vaudevillians, movie aficionados, stage actors, or dance-marathoners is not necessarily right for everything else. When Dürrenmatt wrote his tale about Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, returning to the town of her birth and life-defining adolescent shaming to literally buy the death of the man, Anton, who wronged her, it was to take a vivisecting, hole-black look at the disintegration of morality in the wake of World War II and indict those who were, consciously or otherwise, intent on perpetuating its atrocities. The comedy was an alienating delivery mechanism, not the raison d'être.
That most of the songs are stereotypical-sounding Weill homages of the lower-middle-tier variety (the best of these is Claire's late and torchy "Love and Love Alone"), and the others are deceptively sunny odes to a lusher life ahead (there's a comedic masque, an upbeat diegetic chorus, and a lifeless showstopper for Claire's retinue, among others), leads none of them to sound legitimate, despite David Loud's fine musical direction and Larry Hochman's orchestrations.
The one number that should bridge the gap — and resoundingly did in the Signature production, which I saw — is "Yellow Shoes," the furious compression of Dürrenmatt's full second act into the villagers' choice-making vehicle. But although Graciela Daniele's choreography is apt, Doyle mangles the moment into a gallumphing grotesque that mocks the ironic beauty and chilling impact inherent in the composition. Flooding the stage with urine-colored lights (by Japhy Weideman), he ensures that no one will miss the significance of this moment. And, in doing so, suffocates exactly that significance. Those familiar with Doyle's proven distaste for subtext will likely not be surprised by this.
Nothing about The Visit is exactly terrible, but nothing about it is great, either. Though Doyle's chopping roughly 45 minutes out of the show (including the intermission) hasn't helped at all — there is no longer any time whatsoever for the suspense (terror, really) to build — it was directionless, hollow, confused from the ground up, and utterly ineffective at achieving its goals seven years ago, so he hasn't done any new damage. What the show needs, and what it will never receive, is a stem-to-stern rethink that strips away the meta nonsense and lets it speak with its own, unique voice — whatever that may be.
There's hardly poor casting at play here; Rees isn't remotely musical, but nicely displays Anton's distant nature, and in smaller roles Jason Danieley (the sympathetic schoolteacher), David Garrison (the simpering mayor), Aaron Ramey (the constable), Mary Beth Peil (Anton's chilly wife), and George Abud and Elena Shaddow (his self-absorbed children) do as much as they can, as do Michelle Vientimilla and John Riddle in the dance-heavy rolls of Claire and Anton's younger selves. But in the end, all that matters is Rivera.
She's ideal for bringing medicinal edge to everyday women, as she's been doing on Broadway for decades, and commands the requisite stern authority of a woman who knows she need answer to no one. But whereas her portrayal at Signature was supple and layered, here it's one-dimensional: all about bestowing pain and not experiencing it. And if she doesn't echo some bit of the poor girl who rose to such stratospheric heights, and whose thirst for the ultimate remuneration has long driven her, why Claire should be important to us is not clear.
Rivera's movement appears tentative, too, even compared to what she did in The Mystery of Edwin Drood two and a half years ago. Some of that could be a character choice, but Claire is not helpless: She's at last reaching the apex of her ambition, but nothing in Rivera's Claire says that. Decked for most of the evening in a torn wedding dress, for her the past is an enemy, not a tool, but it's one that you don't believe she knows how to use.
Perhaps this Claire just can't be reconciled? Perhaps the woman who hungers to restore her lost innocence five decades on isn't the same one who'd coo and tweet with her butler and valets because someone declared need for a comic showstopper? Perhaps what she feels for Anton simply isn't musical, however much reigning musical masters of the last five decades want her to be? Or perhaps, just perhaps, the kind of common sense everyone should have applied here — the understanding that not everything is a laughing, cheering matter — is one thing in life that, even with Rivera as currency, still can't be bought?