by Charles Isherwood on February 28, 2016
ARLINGTON, Va. — The macabre and the misty-eyed vie uneasily for supremacy in “The Visit,” a musical adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 tragicomedy about vengeance and venality, at the Signature Theater here.
Chita Rivera, celebrated for her long career as a Broadway dancer-actress, plays Claire Zachanassian, the much-married megamillionairess who returns to her hometown with more on her mind than happy reunions. Claire, you may recall, has lost at least an arm and a leg — literally — as she has piled up husbands and oil wells in the course of a long, profitable life. That is a pity, given Ms. Rivera’s ability to rivet the eye with the flare of a calf muscle, even after more than a half-century onstage. As Claire, she shimmies and slinks glamorously, but only hitches up her long skirts and lets loose for a few lively moments in the second act.
In this honorable but conflicted version of Dürrenmatt’s corrosively dark play, with a book by Terrence McNallyand songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Claire does remain in possession of an organ you’d think would be a handicap for a woman exacting murderous revenge: namely a heart. Claire will lose herself in a musical reverie of affection for her youthful love one moment, and coldly return to negotiating his demise as soon as the music fades. It’s multitasking taken to a freakish new extreme.
The musical has had a complicated gestation. It was announced about a decade ago as a potential vehicle for the long-awaited Broadway return of Angela Lansbury. That was not to be; Ms. Lansbury had to withdraw when her husband fell ill. “The Visit” was ultimately produced at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2001 in a staging by Frank Galati and starring Ms. Rivera that opened, somewhat unhappily, shortly after Sept. 11. It was subsequently scheduled for a berth at the Public Theater, but that never materialized.
Mr. Galati has essentially restaged his production for the Signature, where it is running through June 22 as the final entry in the company’s spring festival devoted to the work of Mr. Kander and his songwriting partner, Mr. Ebb, who died in 2004. (This season the company also presented revivals of the pair’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Happy Time,” not to mention “Glory Days,” a non-Kander-and-Ebb musical that did not have such a happy time on Broadway.) New to the cast are George Hearn, in firm, fine voice as Claire’s former love and current prey, here called Anton Schell, and Mark Jacoby, also impressive as the mayor of Claire and Anton’s hometown.
Mr. Galati’s shadow-shrouded production remains true to Dürrenmatt’s stylized vision. The set, by Derek McLane, is a plain wooden platform backed by two rows of dark doorways carved in a forbidding wall of dull red brick. Howell Binkley’s spotlights chase the characters around the stage like probing fingers of conscience or fate.
Mr. McNally’s book is also a generally straightforward adaptation, sticking closely to the thick black outlines of the original play. In brief, the citizens of a little Swiss burg are kindly requested to take Anton’s life in exchange for Claire’s fabulous financial largess. She was betrayed by him in her youth and treated roughly by the town too. Her forthright request proves to be an offer the impoverished people cannot refuse, protest though they do, at first, at its outrageousness.
The material’s cackling tone often turns into a whimper, unfortunately, whenever the ample band strikes up one of the lilting ballads that Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb have provided, presumably in an attempt to give more complex emotional coloring to the characters. Claire and the townsfolk sing a fine, jaunty introductory song in which she briskly details her profitable nuptial history:
It’s really not a secret
So I’m more than pleased to tell
I married very often
And I widowed very well.
Mr. Ebb’s lyrics in this early number and a couple more have the zest and wit of his finer work. But soon Claire and Anton are exchanging more lyrical recollections of their youthful idyll, and the play’s dagger of a plot becomes seriously blunted. Claire is a kind of female Sweeney Todd. Her heart was singed by betrayal in her youth; now she is bent remorselessly on brutal revenge. But as reconceived here, she wavers between sentimental musical interludes and glinty-eyed commitment to retribution. Sweeney Todd with a soft spot? It doesn’t quite work.
Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb are best known for their dark, glittering musicals “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” both revived with spectacular success on Broadway. (“Chicago” has run for almost a dozen years now.) Their attraction to Dürrenmatt’s bleak comic fable about the corruptible human conscience is easy to understand; their two greatest shows evince a similarly cynical view.
But their vaudevillian romp through Jazz Age Chicago and their Brechtian trawl through the nightclubs of Berlin both have showbiz in their DNA. Dürrenmatt’s play flatly does not, and even Mr. Kander’s more patently Kurt Weill-derived inspirations feel too razzle-dazzly for this pitiless take on need and greed. (It does not help that some of the songs are similar to the songwriters’ previous work; “Yellow Shoes,” the catchy first-act closer, is rather too close kin to “City Lights” from “The Act.”) The score as a whole is stronger than their work on “Curtains,” but it would probably take Weill himself, or maybe an Alban Berg, to find an authentic musical language for Dürrenmatt’s vision.
Ms. Rivera does exude a fierce, chilly hauteur when Claire is at her most imperious, her sharp-angled features glowing like a Kabuki mask in the stark lighting. She is mordantly effective in the comedy too, as when Claire responds to the scandalized townspeople’s denunciation of her offer of lucre for blood with a concise rebuttal: “I can wait.”
And while Ms. Rivera’s singing voice, never her strongest asset, has roughened around the edges, the big Act II ballad, “Love and Love Alone,” sits comfortably in her range, and she delivers it with spellbinding simplicity. (She looks splendid, too, in Susan Hilferty’s fur-trimmed suits and voluptuous gowns.)
Mr. Hearn’s robust baritone remains a thrilling instrument, although too many of Anton’s songs are similar in tone or excessively reprised. The slow growth of Anton’s resignation to his grim fate is traced effectively, and the moment when Anton cowers in fear, unable to flee the town, is strikingly staged. The rest of the cast is also strong, with Jeremy Webb a standout as the schoolmaster, the last man fighting for Anton’s life.
Mr. Jacoby leads one of the better comic numbers, a masque in which the townsfolk tell the story of their declining fortunes in song, which features the most inspired work by the choreographer, Ann Reinking. (Elsewhere, Ms. Reinking’s dances either play up the out-of-place lyricism, in a series of ballet pas de deux for the young Anton and Claire, or feel too Broadway splashy.)
Mr. Jacoby also leaves us with the production’s startling final image. The lights fade on the mayor, with Claire’s check in hand, staring in growing stupefaction as the poison of what he has done works quickly within him.
It’s creepy and chilling, but that slack-jawed look of horror should be a mirror for the audience’s own at the conclusion of any staging of “The Visit.” This softer-edged adaptation, too full of lively or elegiac musical divertissements to carve its way deeply into the psyche, is more likely to inspire mild clucks of philosophical regret.
Book by Terrence McNally; music by John Kander; lyrics by Fred Ebb; based on the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, adapted by Maurice Valency; directed by Frank Galati; choreography by Ann Reinking; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Howell Binkley; sound by Matt Rowe; production stage manager, Kerry Epstein; orchestrations by Michael Gibson; additional orchestrations by Larry Hochman; musical supervision, vocal and dance arrangements by David Loud. Presented by the Signature Theater, Eric Schaeffer, artistic director; Maggie Boland, managing director. At the Signature’s MAX Theater, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Va.; (703) 573-7328. Through June 22. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.
WITH: Chita Rivera (Claire Zachanassian), George Hearn (Anton Schell), Mark Jacoby (the mayor), Bethe B. Austin (Annie), D. B. Bonds (Young Anton), Matthew Deming (Louis Perch), Alan H. Green (Benny), James Harms (Rudi), Michael Hayward-Jones (the priest), Howard Kaye (Lenny), Doug Kreeger (Evgeny), Mary Ann Lamb (Young Claire), Jerry Lanning (the doctor), Ryan Lowe (Jacob Chicken), Karen Murphy (Matilda), Brian O’Brien (Kurt), Cristen Paige (Ottilie), Kevin Reed (Karl), Hal Robinson (the policeman), Jeremy Webb (the schoolmaster) and Leslie Becker, Brianne Moore and Christy Morton (townspeople).