Sunday, May 3, 2015

Review of "The Visit"

The long gestating musical, The Visit, has finally made its way to Broadway after a 15 year journey.  The last musical by the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, and starring the legendary Chita Rivera, the 95 minute show is a subdued, modest and solemn piece of theater. 

The Visit is a tale of truth, vengenance, and greed.  The straightforward book by Terrence McNally, based on the 1956 play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, takes place in the village of Brachen, Switzerland.  The town is a shell of its former existence.  It is rundown, falling apart and inhabited by a defeated and decrepit populous.  Word soon spreads about the impending return of Claire Zachanassian (Chita Rivera) to her hometown village.  She is now the richest woman in the world and the people look to her for salvation.  After her arrival we learn about her wretched time growing up in Brachen; her torrid love affair with former lover, Anton Schell (Roger Rees), and the dark secrets buried by the past.  The town, she matter-of-factly declares, can be showered with her billions, but must pay an exacting price.

Throughout the production Madam Zachanassian is surrounded is by two obedient eunuchs and an imposing, venerable, gray-haired butler, all who share in the mysterious events of the past, now bubbling to the surface.  There is also a younger version of Claire and Anton, constantly encircling the action on stage.  They give us a glimpse of their youthful, lustful selves, causing us to think what if the acts of the past followed a divergent path?  Would the seismic changes that occurred over the decades to the people and town be different?

The cast is led by the ageless Chita Rivera.  She makes a grand entrance, dressed in a white, flowing gown, fur and priceless jewelry.  At the age of 82 she still commands the stage and demonstrates she can still move elegantly around the boards and forcefully deliver a song.  Roger Rees’ Anton Schell is a conflicted individual and it shows through the pained inevitability of his performance.  The rest of the actors are solid in support of Rivera and Rees.

The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb is workman-like with occasional flourishes of cynicism and bite we have come to associate with the two veterans.  However, persistently, this is an underwhelming group of songs that never rises to the heights the duo has so consistently delivered in the past.  One can only imagine the difference the work would have been if Ebb, who died over ten years earlier, was alive to still tinker on the score.

The scenic design by Scott Pask is grand and ominous as it rises into the rafters of the Lyceun Theatre.  It sets the tone of the environs even before the production commences.  Japhy Weideman’s lighting amplifies the downtrodden nature of the town and its denizens.

John Doyle’s direction is serviceable as he guides the actors and actresses around the stark setting.  Even though the players comment on the action and plead their case, the overall emphasis is presenting the troupe as an ominous whole.  Doyle adds a ghost-like, and somewhat effective, ambiance to the production as characters silently, periodically, pace in the background. 

The Visit, a reserved and slender piece of musical theater. 

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