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Perfecting the Visit

photo by Paul Fox

Kander, Ebb, McNally Musical The Visit, Starring Chita Rivera

The specific goals of a critic are influenced by the city in which he (or less often, she) works. In Manhattan, the center of the American theatrical universe, critics tend to adopt the role of Nero: thumbs up, or thumbs down. Accustomed to seeing highly polished work that has been refined in other cities, journalists in New York City often have little experience of seeing work in development. In fact, unfinished work frequently bewilders them.

There are places, however, where critics are highly attuned to unfinished work. Chris Jones, for example, chief critic for the Chicago Tribune, is well known for his play prescriptions. His recommendations for plays en route to New York have made him one of the mostly highly regarded and influential critics in the world. Producers who try out a show in Chicago value his suggestions and eagerly anticipate his verdicts. Indeed, critics in New York are acutely aware of Jones, sometimes to the point of viewing him as a threat.

It is a shame, therefore, that when the John Kander / Fred Ebb / Terrence McNally musical adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play, The Visit opened at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer, the New York Times reviewed it, but the Chicago Tribune did not. In his tepid review for the Times, Ben Brantley tentatively opined, “The Visit is probably in better shape than it ever has been or will be.”

I expect that Jones might have offered more insight, particularly since the show debuted at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2001. Jones saw it; Brantley didn’t.

The production in Williamstown, Massachusetts has Broadway aspirations written all over it. Broadway legend Chita Rivera stars opposite Roger Rees (Nicholas Nickelby), with direction by John Doyle (Company, Sweeney Todd), choreography by Graciela Daniele (Ragtime, The Rink, Drood), scenery by Scott Pask (Book of Mormon); and costumes by Ann Hould-Ward (Beauty and the Beast, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George). Even the hair and wig design have an impressive pedigree, having been done by Broadway legend Paul Huntley.

Rivera appeared in the show at the Goodman and again at Virginia’s Signature Theatre in 2008. The actress has two Tony Awards, each also for a musical that had music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a script by Terrence McNally. The first was The Rink (1984). The second was Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993).

In The Visit, Rivera plays Claire Zachanassian, a woman who left her hometown in poverty and disgrace at the age of 17, but who has returned in old age as the richest woman in the world. The town has fallen on desperately hard times and hopes Zachanassian has come back to save them. She has, but at a horrifying price. She wants them to kill the man who jilted her all those many years ago.

I have seen all three stagings of the show, as well as a one-night performance in New York to benefit the Actors’ Fund in 2011. I agree that the show is in the best shape it has ever been, but not that the work has maxed out and can’t be improved. The work of director Doyle and choreographer Daniele has been transformative. McNally’s sharp refinements of his script have made a more highly dramatic and marvelously disturbing theatrical event. The creative team is moving in precisely the right direction, and these people are, after all, among the most gifted and experienced individuals working in the American musical theater.

McNally has removed subplots from the story involving Claire arriving with a simpleminded boy-toy of a husband who likes to fish; her divorce from this husband and her marriage and divorce from a Hollywood star. A wandering two hour musical with intermission now clocks in at 95 efficient and captivating minutes. Anton’s children, who were silly teenagers in all previous versions, are now more mature; their resentment of their father seems motivated by frustration with life now, rather than by unsatisfying adolescent self-absorption as in the previous versions.

Daniele’s choreography is far superior to the previous versions. Numbers like a one-legged tango Rivera danced with her servants, and “Yellow Shoes” in which the citizens of the town become obsessed with consumerism, formerly seemed like sequences of clever and pleasing “steps.” The former afforded the audience a chance to see Rivera dance; the latter was an obligatory show stopper. Now, each dance advances the message of the piece. The characters of Young Claire and Young Anton, which in previous versions seemed to be extraneous, or like apologies for the fact that the leads were no longer in their 20s, are now omnipresent and serve to heighten the drama at every turn. We are never allowed to forget, either the passion or the betrayal of the past on which the story is built. Audience members wept openly when Rivera dances with her younger self. (The show does still need a better transition into Rivera’s number with her servants, “I Would Never Leave You,” which is not adequately motivated).

Especially, important, Daniele understands that Rivera, the greatest Broadway dancer of her generation for whom choreographers like Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse devised some of their most iconic work, is now 81 years old. Rather than apologize for this and work around the fact that Rivera is no longer poised to perform a full-throttle “Dance at the Gym,” Daniele has embraced the passage of time and the legend of Rivera. Audiences were gasping even to see Rivera walk across the stage with a cane—which Doyle and Daniele require her to do frequently. Each gesture of her hand and grand battement was greeted with enthusiasm by an audience grateful to see that Rivera still moves like no one else, and commands a stage like no one else. With her incomparable grace and precision, Rivera’s reputation was never about acrobatics. Bob Fosse famously coached her to do less, less, less, thereby inventing the distinctive look of “All That Jazz” in Chicago, which Rivera can still perform and no other dancer has ever duplicated.

At the moment, the love story of The Visit eclipses the story of revenge. These two threads of the plot need to be aligned and reconciled. After all, if Claire loves the man so much, why doesn’t she just leave town with him alive, now that he sees the errors of his past? It needs to be clear that Claire loves Anton so much that only his murder will allow her to forgive him for his brutally damaging betrayal.

In keeping with this lapse, the show’s most disturbing ballad, “Love and Love Alone,” seems to be misplaced in the drama. Claire sings the number before a private reconciliation with Anton in the woods, where he finally asks about the child they had and the life she endured. This song of embittered love that asks what turns a heart to stone? and answers “love and love alone.” The song is the answer to a question, and therefore needs to come after that question has been asked. Anton’s confession to Claire is a kind of bid for his life and Claire still determines that she wants him dead. “When you’re young, feeling oh so strong, what can prove you wrong, love and love alone.”

Melding the love story onto Dürrenmatt’s irresistible tale of revenge is the reason this story needs music.

The work done so far is sublime and tantalizingly close to perfect. It would be criminal for this show not to get the future nurturing it needs.