by Peter Marks on May 29, 2008
You get Chita Rivera, you expect a bit of razzle-dazzle. For the longest time in Signature Theatre’s austere musical adaptation of “The Visit,” the show obscures this essential facet of its star’s appeal — until partway into Act 2, when she’s allowed to shed some of the production’s stony resolve and finesse her way through a comical little tango.
The warmth of the dance number — snazzily choreographed by none other than Ann Reinking — is intentionally out of step with the macabre progress of the rest of this admirable if not consistently embraceable musical, created by composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb and librettist Terrence McNally a few years prior to Ebb’s death in 2004. And so it’s doubly gratifying to behold a hoofer of terrific gams and mature vintage (Rivera’s well into her 70s) beguiling a room merely by jogging the collective memory of her fabulous leg extensions.
Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s severe 1956 tragicomedy about a vengeful dowager seeking her pound of flesh in a hard-luck Central European town where venality breeds like bacteria, “The Visit” was perhaps destined to be a musical of ambivalent rewards. Although it now names the setting as Dürrenmatt’s homeland, Switzerland, and embellishes the story of once-upon-a-time love between Rivera’s Claire Zachanassian and George Hearn’s Anton Schell, McNally’s libretto otherwise faithfully conforms to the play’s original outline, in which Claire offers to give the town’s fathers billions if they will murder her onetime lover.
Which is to say that “The Visit” comes across as something short of electrifying with the addition of song and dance. It makes at times for a jarring art-house spectacle, as in the creepy contributions of Claire’s eunuchs, harmonizing in falsetto. And yet there is also fine craftsmanship here, courtesy of director Frank Galati (“Ragtime”) and a design team expertly conjuring a laconic, Brechtian physical realm; Susan Hilferty’s costumes for the shabby citizenry are especially eye-pleasing. The resonant orchestrations and employment of grand Broadway voices — such as those of Hearn and Mark Jacoby, the latter portraying the town’s all-too-pliable mayor — accord the production a large measure of aural confidence and polish.
And though the second-from-the-top-drawer Kander and Ebb score fails to produce anything close to a signature number, Kander knits together a melodically cohesive web of Middle European waltzes and choral numbers that befit the cynical strands in the story and the formality of Swiss society. The plaintive ballads tend to end abruptly or simply melt away, as if to suggest, too, that the raging emotions of “The Visit” are meant to remain subterranean.
The show was staged once before, in 2001 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, by Galati and Reinking, with Rivera as leading lady. (John McMartin played Anton there.) Kander has said that in tweaking the piece, he’s composed new songs for the character of Anton; that undoubtedly was beneficial, because Hearn’s distinguished work here affirms increasingly penitent Anton as the soul of “The Visit,” a man who manages to acquire grace as his neighbors and even his children stifle their own better natures. The evening’s most affecting moment is engineered by Galati for Hearn, as his Anton stands at the edge of the woods, facing his shamed wife and children and, in essence, grants them permission to turn their backs on him.
“The Visit” is all about human weakness: for selfish advantage, for someone to blame, for easy answers. The modern-day world, in which the haves continue to consume resources with impunity and rationalize the plight of the have-nots, is still a fitting place for the matters and characters of the work.
As in Dürrenmatt’s play, the straightforward plot charts the celebrated return to the town of her childhood by Claire, who has become the world’s richest woman as a result of several advantageous marriages — some lasting no more than a few minutes. (Claire’s frequent asides about her luxe life have the effect of weighing down, rather than enlivening, the character.) Although the downtrodden townfolk of Brachen (called “Guellen” in the play) imagine Claire will fill the bankrupt coffers with her munificence, the bitter old woman instead offers them the horrifying bargain.
The challenge for the people of Brachen is whether they will uphold their values or yield to temptation. The answer is supplied in one of the evening’s best numbers, the Act 1 finale “Yellow Shoes,” in which the ensemble dances to the rhythms of Brachen’s basic instincts.
Despite the presence of Rivera — who, because her character has a wooden leg, hobbles on a cane — dance remains a subordinate aspect of “The Visit.” The opportunities Reinking gets, however, she takes full advantage of, in the production numbers and flashbacks to young Anton (D.B. Bonds) and Claire (Mary Ann Lamb), who in abbreviated bursts invite comparisons to duets in the dream ballets of Agnes de Mille.
Still, the more intense narrative focus here, on the back story of Anton and Claire, raises as many questions as it seeks to address. What we glimpse in flashback is a musical’s very conventional portrait of romance, which does not sit comfortably in Dürrenmatt’s wilder framework. The device does little to place in perspective the extreme cruelties that were and will be committed by Anton and Claire. If anything, the effort to fill in the picture of their romantic bond renders their later decisions all but inexplicable.
Few of the actors in supporting roles get a stab at establishing bona fide personalities, though James Harms is effective as Claire’s butler, Rudi, and Jeremy Webb makes an impact as a compassionate if ineffectual schoolmaster. Emotionally, Hearn’s character is the only one to go from Point A to Point B, and the actor gains in stature even as Anton spirals downward. Rivera has mostly to look commanding and swell, which, it seems, is not a stretch.