Friday, 10 April 2015

Chita Rivera in Kander/Ebb/McNally's THE VISIT

     I have vivid memories of seeing Friedrich Durrenmatt's THE VISIT on Broadway when I was in high school. The production was directed by the great Peter Brook and starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. I'd never seen anything quite like this powerful, grotesque satire on how easily an entire community can be turned into killers for the right price, and how easily they can justify their crime. Durrenmatt was Swiss, but clearly he is writing about Germany. The protagonist, Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, is, after all half-Roma and half Jewish, two of the prime targets of Hitler's attempt to create a pure Aryan society. Claire grew up in this small town. As a teenager, she fell in love with Alfred, who left her to marry a local rich girl. When Claire tried to bring a paternity suit against Alfred, two witnesses testified that she was promiscuous and the judge ruled against her. Now those two witnesses and the judge are Claire's retinue. The judge has been blinded and the false witnesses castrated. After years as a prostitute, Claire married a succession of immensely wealthy men who died leaving her their fortune. She has quietly bought up most of her home town and allowed it to become destitute. She returns with her bizarre retinue and an empty coffin to offer the town and every citizen in it a huge fortune if they will kill Alfred. The inevitable happens in this dark picture of human nature.
     THE VISIT is hardly the basis for a conventional Broadway musical. No wonder it has taken over fifteen years to get to Broadway. It is dark, cynical, grotesque. One can only wonder why Sondheim never took it on.  John Kander and Fred Ebb have had their share of dark, satirical musicals (think CABARET, CHICAGO and KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN). If their songs don't have the linguistic brilliance or musical originality of a Sondheim score, they did find the right tone for the work and produced good, if not great scores. The score of THE VISIT is Kander and Ebb back in their minor key Kurt Weill-y mode of CABARET. Like the original play, the score is dark, brooding, but also witty. THE VISIT was, after all, meant to be a comedy. Terrence McNally is a master at adapting plays, movies and novels for the musical stage. Here one must also credit director John Doyle, who knows how to trim a show to its essentials. This version of THE VISIT is a tight ninety minutes.
     A cast of fifteen portray the denizens of this impoverished town. Doyle has wisely cast some of New York's best supporting players, the likes of Mary Beth Peil, Jason Danieley and David Garrison, as ensemble members. He also has included two young singer-dancers to play the young Claire and Anton (the name has been changed from Alfred). In the musical more than the play, Claire and Anton both live for their memories of their youthful passion. The young couple also offer a contrast to their older selves. Of course, Chita Rivera is wonderful. At eighty-two, she still is a commanding performer, a real star. She's now more of a baritone than a belter, but every word and note come across. The energy is still there. All the bland younger generation of musical performers should be required to see her performance. We go to the theater to be excited by distinctive personalities, not Stepford performers. Veteran actor-director-writer Roger Rees radiates his love of acting and his dedication to this part as well as his continued love for Claire, even when she wants him dead. Rees is another grand stage personality. It's worth the price of admission to see these two old pros at work, but everyone is good.
    Doyle is a master of musical staging. Yes, his trademark luggage plays a crucial role. It is amazing how much movement has has brought to this piece, but none of it seems distracting or unnecessary. Graciele Danielle, who has been around almost as long as Chita Rivera has created the minimal choreography. Scott Pask's two-level unit set, is impressive.
     This show won't please the folks who want safe Broadway family entertainment, but it's a must see for those of us who are still invested in the possibilities of musical theatre.
THE VISIT. Lyceum Theatre. April 8, 2015.

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