By: Paulanne Simmons
The Visit, a musical based on Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s dark drama, Der Besuch der alten Dame, has so much going for it one doesn’t
know where to start. It has a score the legendary songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb had been working on before Ebb’s death in 2004. It has a book by Terrance McNally, with whom they’d collaborated on the Tony Award-winning The Kiss of the Spider Woman. And it stars the inimitable Chita Rivera as the aging and very rich Claire Zachanassian.
After a long absence during which she has become extremely wealthy through a series of lucrative marriages ("I Walk Away"), Claire returns to her birthplace, the small town of Brachen (in an unidentified country that is actually Switzerland). It was here that she was forsaken by her first love, Anton Schell (Roger Reese) and scorned by the townsfolk for her lowly Jewish-Gypsy parentage, facts the townsfolk seem to have conveniently forgotten in their yearning for her to become their savior.
The priest hopes she will aid the church. The policeman would like her to finance a real police force. The teacher begs her to rebuilt the rundown school. ("A Happy Ending") But Claire has something else in mind. She is seeking justice, which also goes by the name of revenge. And in this case has a lot to do with smoldering love.
Claire agrees to bestow an enormous sum of money on the town and its people, but at a very high, somewhat immoral price. At first the citizens are outraged, but during her long and difficult life, Claire has learned that money is powerful and people are craven. She is willing to wait.
Director John Doyle, one more asset to the production, clearly understands the value of the material he is working with. He gives us Scott Pask’s magnificent set of decayed buildings to indicate some old, crumbling European town, and doesn’t clutter the stage with much else. He sees the humor that lies just below the surface even in the most tragic view of life. And he lets Rivera take command as only this 82-year-old actress knows how.
One can hardly think of a better choice for the proud and contemptuous Claire. Rivera can so perfectly indicate scorn with a glance, a gesture or tone of voice that she barely has to move her still graceful body. She brandishes her cane like soldier’s lance or taps it on the floor like a conductor’s baton. When she breaks into dance, a twist of her head a tilt of her shoulders goes a very, very long way.
Nor could one hope for a better leading man. Reese is both convincing and moving as a proud ("I Must Have Been Something") and broken ("Fear") man. Despite their age (and the difference in their age), there is great electricity between Reese and Rivera.
Upon her arrival, Claire brings with her two blind eunuchs, Jacob Chicken (Chris Newcomer) and and Louis Perch (Matthew Deming) who sing in falsetto, and Rudi (Tom Nelis) her butler, all of whom are devoted and servile. When her mission is accomplished and she sets them free, they are so terrified she reassures them with "I would Never Leave You," a song-and-dance number Rivera, Nelis, Newcomer and Deming turn into one of the show’s highlights.
Michelle Veintimilla and John Riddle both make an auspicious Broadway debuts as Younger Claire and Young Anton. Their love is mostly conveyed through beautiful and sensuous dancing. But it is in the extraordinary pas de deux performed by Rivera and Veintimilla that choreographer Graciela Daniele shows exactly why she was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2006.
The Visit is filled with symbolism. Ill-gotten wealth is always yellow, the color or cowards.The eunuchs wear the white masks of the dead. And somewhere in this magnificent musical it becomes obvious that what we are seeing is an allegory very much in the vein of Bertolt Brecht.This is not surprising as Dürrenmatt, like Brecht, was a proponent of Epic Theater. And if Brecht had Kurt Weill, now Dürrenmatt (as interpreted by McNally) has Kander and Ebb.
The Visit has been fourteen years in the making. During that time it lost both its intended star, Angela Lansbury, who bowed out because of illness, and it’s lyricist. Like Claire, it has emerged stronger, smarter and more radiant.
The Visit is now playing at the Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street
Running Time 95 minutes, with no intermission
Nominated for 7 2015 Drama Desk Awards
Outstanding Actress in a Musical – Chita Rivera
Outstanding Director of a Musical – John Doyle
Outstanding Music – John Kander
Outstanding Lyrics – Fred Ebb
Outstanding Book of a Musical – Terence McNally
Outstanding Set Design – Scott Pask