John Kander and Fred Ebb’s long-awaited musical The Visit is dark, satirical and definitely not for kiddos. The story, adapted by Terrence McNally from the 1956 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, is an unusual tale of revenge and the power of money versus morality. There aren’t, I’m afraid, any catchy show-stopping numbers, as one might expect from the great songwriting team behind Cabaret and Chicago. But the musical does have one not-so-secret weapon: the ageless, peerless Broadway legend Chita Rivera. She will be the main draw for her legions of devoted fans, some of whom she first dazzled as Anita in West Side Story way back in 1957.
Her fans will not be disappointed, even though Rivera doesn’t do much dancing in The Visit. She plays Claire Zachanassian, the wealthiest woman in the world. Rivera makes a regal entrance, looking splendid in a white gown, fur hat and a necklace dripping with diamonds and rubies. Claire has returned to her now-impoverished hometown of Brachen with her butler (Tom Nelis) and a pair of eunuchs (Chris Newcomer and Matthew Deming) who wear yellow platform shoes and yellow gloves. We later learn that she has an artificial leg due to a car crash. She also has an artificial hand, the result of a plane crash. “I was the only one who crawled out of the wreckage,” she says. “I’m unkillable.” Spoken triumphantly by Rivera, a Broadway survivor who suffered a broken leg in a car crash in the 1980s, that line understandably elicits a roar from the audience.
Besides getting McNally’s zingiest lines, Rivera also gets the best songs. “I Walk Away” is a funny ditty listing Claire’s many marriages, and she delivers it with aplomb. “I married very often, and I widowed very well,” she sings in her rich, throaty, unmistakable voice. A bit later she sings the pretty tune “You, You, You” with Roger Rees, who plays her childhood sweetheart, shopkeeper Anton Schell, along with the 17-year-old versions of Claire and Anton (Michelle Veintimilla and John Riddle). The young couple looks and sounds lovely together. Their seemingly idyllic love soon looks less idyllic, however, when Claire remembers how she was run out of town and had to become a whore.
It turns out that Claire’s mother was a gypsy and her father was a Jew, so the family was shunned in Brachen. Now the townspeople, who greet Claire at the decrepit train station, hope Claire will come to their rescue. (Scott Pask’s gloomy set, with dead vines clinging to columns and a hole-riddled glass roof, is perfect. And Japhy Weideman’s lighting matches the moody score and cynical story.) Claire reveals that she does have a plan to bail out the town, but her plan comes with a murderous cost.
It’s quite dark material for a musical, even darker than Chicago and without the sexy dance numbers. Kander and Ebb’s score is suitably moody, and the ensemble and orchestra sound terrific. Rees, who makes Anton rather sad and sympathetic, doesn’t have much of a voice, unfortunately. The Eunuchs, Newcomer and Deming, can sing. But they perform their “Eunuch’s Testimony” in falsetto—for obvious reasons—and it’s pretty grating. Jason Danieley is underused in a supporting role but shows off his big voice in “The Only One.”
Director John Doyle and choreographer Graciela Daniele first teamed up on The Visit last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The Broadway production is largely the same, though the set has been enlarged and Mary Beth Peil has replaced Judy Kuhn as Anton’s wife. Doyle’s direction is fluid, and the action never flags during the show’s intermissionless 100 minutes. One moving element of the set is a black coffin, which Doyle has his cast members rotate rather too frequently. (Stop the spinning casket; I want to get off!)
On the other hand, whenever the superb Rivera (née Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero) commands the stage, we certainly don’t want her to get off. Here she does more singing than dancing, but what dancing she does is elegant and graceful. Her duet with Veintimilla as young Claire is quite touching.
Kander and the late Ebb originally wrote The Visit as a vehicle for Angela Lansbury, and it was scheduled to open on Broadway in 2001. Fourteen years later, the retooled version is a perfect fit for the indomitable Rivera. For the record, the tireless singer-dancer-actress (who won Tonys for Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Rink) is now 82. And she is as fabulous as ever.