The Visit, Book by Terrence McNally, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play, "The Visit of The Old Lady," by Friedrich Duerrenmatt, translated by Maurice Valency. Directed by John Doyle.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"When you're terrified to face tomorrow. . ."
Roger Rees as Anton Schell; photo: T. Charles Erickson
When I met John Kander in 1968 his fourth Broadway musical, "The Happy Time," had just opened. He confided in me that one day he wanted to write an opera. He was, at that time, becoming one of the most successful composers for the theater in Broadway history. Now, in 2014, his opera has come to pass although I am certain he never thought of it that way until now. It has been 14 years since he began the journey of "The Visit," and a lot has changed along the way. The current production of this work, now on stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is the third one since 2001. Chita Rivera and John McMartin starred in the Goodman Theatre production in Chicago that year. Then in 2008 Rivera and George Hearn played it at the Signature Theater in a workshop production that went nowhere. Now here it is in a new edition helmed by John Doyle who has pared away songs, thrown away characters and reduced it from a two act musical to a one-act opera, a nearly through-composed work with motives and recurring themes.
In those passing years Fred Ebb died leaving John Kander without his long-time partner. Since 2004 this show has waited to be performed again, and once again with Chita Rivera in the lead (she originally replaced Angela Lansbury and no one else has ever had a shot at this part). Ebb's death may have influenced the final draft of the show for the lyrics are the only weak item in the final product. They are simplistic and predictable for the most part, although Rivera's first solo, "Widows Weeds" has the best of the bunch. Oddly, it matters very little how clever the rhymes may be, or how biting the witticisms, or even how romantic the ballads and waltzes. The strength of Duerrenmatt's characters overrides everything else but the music. The combination of story and sound is what carries this show to excess.
The story is a simple one: Claire Zachanassian, nee Clara Vasscher, the wealthiest woman in the world, returns to her home town for a visit bringing with her an entourage, a coffin and a pledge of several billion dollars to restore the town to health and prosperity. All she wants in return is the death of the man she loved who ruined her and abandoned her many years earlier. Anton Schell, the man, claims to still love her and regret his youthful actions, but Claire isn't satisfied until the town executes him. A simple tale of love, revenge and greed. An allegory of sorts: eat or be eaten; buy yourself some justice.
This is dark stuff. This is the patent of opera, transforming the darkness through music. This is where John Kander shines magnificently. He has done this before. In "Zorba" he transported the soul of a people into a bazooki circle. In "70, Girls, 70" he made the sprightliness of old age into something intrinsicly valuable. In
"Cabaret" he transcribed the lush tones of a Bavarian ballad into a horrible Hitlerian theme song. He made us love a mother and daughter who had nothing to say to one another in "The Rink." We went to prison with him where the fantasy tones of the "Kiss of the Spider Woman" saved the soul of a transvestite and a revolutionary. Kander has been able, through his music, to make us believe in the better side of the darkness in mankind. He is no less in control here with "The Visit." His work, more than that of anyone else connected with this show, is what will live inside the audience privileged to hear it.
On stage is a group of actors who can equally transport us. Roger Rees plays the man in the picture, Anton Schell, who must come to grips with the reality of his years and his mistakes. Rees sings! It's like Garbo Talks; the surprise comes early in the piece and his work is just delightful. He not only sings, he acts and reacts and makes his character so lifelike that we ultimately cannot see Roger Rees any longer, only Anton Schell. Rees is perfection here, playing a flawed man who cannot hide behind his reputation but must only play out his indecision until the right course is the obvious only course. Claire may be paying the visit to the town, but Rees's Anton is paying a visit to his conscience and we see every twist in his tightly constructed roadway.
Claire's entourage are played by two countertenors and a bass-baritone. As the eunuchs are counter-tenor actors Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer. Both men have performed at Bard Summerscape and both, in these roles, are stunning. They literally sing like angels and they can mime and act and send chills up your spine when they move in unison and create a picture of subjugation like no other you are likely to see. Tom Nelis plays Rudi, the major-domo, once a judge and his cold demeanor is guarateed to send at least one chill through your body.
As the young Claire and Anton are Michelle Veintimilla and John Bamberry, very pretty people who sing beautifully, dance Graciela Daniele's choreography wonderfully well and remain visual images of a lost past throughout the 94 minute show. Other standouts in the company include Melanie Field as Ottilie Schell, Anton's daughter, Judy Kuhn as Matilde, Schell's wife, Rick Holmes as Father Josef and most of all Jason Danieley as the schoolmaster, Friederich Kuhn. Daniely has the only true heart-breaking musical moment in his late in the show song, "I was the only one."
As the mayor of the town David Garrison gives a terrific performance, the man who struggles with his own beliefs in order to save his people and his village. He is a persuasive player and a giant presence throughout the show.
It is, of course, Chita Rivera who has devoted fourteen years of her life to this part who holds it all together. No longer the sharp-featured beauty of the 1950s and 1960s, it is the remnant of that youthfulness that is the trigger for "The Visit"'s impact. She walks painfully in this character (Claire has a false leg due to an accident) and the imperial image she gives is tied to the historical movement of French actress Sarah Bernhardt who did have a wooden leg. She embraces diffidently due to Claire's false forearm (another accident) and her movement of that arm is efficient and tender. She delivers her songs in part sprechstimme and part pure vocalism and the combination tugs at the mind and the memory of past dramatic song triumphs. Her performance is one minor triumph after another as her Claire takes back what she was forced to give away. Her quiet utterances in the duet "Don't" are as emphatic and emotional as her big moments in "Something" and in "I Own It!" This has been her show for fourteen years and it will be hers for a long time to come.
John Doyle has done some fine work bringing this new version of the show to the stage. I might argue with this or that choice, the constant onlooking of the company at moments which cannot concern them, for example, but overall he has done a lovely job of orchestrating the disparate elements of the play and the music. Of all of his shows that I've seen, this is his finest and I am impressed. He has had some excellent help in the design team of Scott Pask for an oversized but perfect set, Ann Hould Ward for just perfect costumes, Japhy Weideman for lighting that illuminates the story and the stars and the fine sound design of Dan Moses Schreier.
Whether or not this show is intended for Broadway that is where it belongs. Had it opened in NYC this past season it would have won the Tony Awards. I hope it happens for "The Visit" this coming season. The work deserves critical, popular and industry acclaim for all that it accomplishes so brilliantly.
Tom Nelis as Rudi, Chita Rivera as Claire Zachanassian, Chris Newcomer as Jacob Chicken; photo: T. Charles Erickson
David Garrison as Mayor Dummermut; photo: T. Charles Erickson
The Visit plays through August 17 for the Williamstown Theatre Festival on the main stage at the '62 Center for Dance and Theater at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413- 597-3400 or go on line to wtfestival.org.