Death becomes her. Or not.
Chita Rivera returns to the stage in Kander and Ebb’s The Visit, a dismally depressing one-act musical adapted from the Swiss play by Friedrich Dürrenmattthat that tells the story of Claire Zachanassian, a wealthy self-proclaimed whore who returns to her destitute hometown to seek revenge on the man who broke her heart.
Originally presented at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2001, the show has seen several incarnations, the most recent being this version that ran at Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, co-starring Roger Rees as Anton Schell, the ex-lover in question. Rees reprises his role opposite Rivera, and despite compelling performances from both; this is a show that should be laid to rest.
The Visit delivers some great theatrics: a crisp performance by Rivera, who sweeps into the action with an entourage of two white-faced eunuchs and her butler; Rees and family, which includes an interesting turn by Mary Beth Peil as his disenchanted wife Matilde; and an ensemble of Broadway regulars such as Jason Danieley and Elena Shaddow who invest full-throttle in a plot that goes nowhere.
They all tell the non-story of a bankrupt village faced with the decision to sacrifice one of their own to reap the benefits of Zachanassian’s spiteful revenge, for she has offered to bail out the town if Anton sacrifices his life. Various perspectives are revealed in stagnant flashbacks and present-day moral dilemmas—all set against an appropriately looming set designed by Scott Pask.
Kander and Ebb’s body of work, which dates back to 1965’s Flora the Red Menace starring Liza Minnelli and includes notable titles including Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman (also starring Chita Rivera) is often known for its accessibility and melodic structure. The Visit is more like a chamber piece, offering complex choral arrangements and rarely a string of notes that the audience can hold onto. While deftly executed, these aren’t show tunes you’ll be humming on your way to Sardi’s afterwards.
Directed with what has now become his signature stamp of ensemble shuffling, John Doyle maneuvers and manipulates the players with the help of choreographer Graciela Daniele. I’m not sure who decided that a coffin should be the one major prop, but after about 90 minutes of gloom and doom one wishes that the whole show could be sealed up and buried six feet under.
It’s a shame that this might be Rivera’s final major swan song to Broadway. Theatergoers will hopefully be lucky enough to have her visit the stage once again.
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What the other critics are saying:
“Kander just can’t help himself. Even in what may well be his darkest work, he writes beautiful romantic melodies. So there are some lovely moments in this show — specifically, those moments when love and forgiveness seem to stand a chance. Chita and Rees are captivating when they find themselves “In the Forest Again,” where they once made love. And Chita is breathtaking in “Love and Love Alone,” the gorgeous ballad for the pas de deux in which she dances with her own younger self. But taken in the context of the material, love and forgiveness don’t really stand a chance in the heart of a vengeful woman.” Variety
“A second-tier Kander and Ebb score is better than a lot of musical craftsmen’s best, which makes The Visit a welcome curiosity, even it’s sure to be a commercial challenge. Finally reaching Broadway after almost 15 years of false starts, the show arrives in a bewitchingly designed production from director John Doyle that magnifies its alluring qualities and masks some of its imperfections. It’s an arresting vehicle for the indomitable Chita Rivera, who has stuck with the project throughout its troubled history, and she remains a uniquely steely stage presence at 82 — graceful, dignified and commanding.” The Hollywood Reporter
“The Visit isn’t for everyone. But Mr. Kander and his late, lamented partner never wrote a finer score, and if you find (as Somerset Maugham put it) that there isn’t much kick in the milk of human kindness, then you’ll thrill to their cruel tale of what men who dare to call themselves decent will do to one another if the price is right.” The Wall Street Journal