By Karen Isaacs
Like many devoted theater lovers — and producers and insiders — I made the trip to Williamstown Theater Festival to see the latest incarnation of the Kander and Ebb musical The Visit.
I’d heard about the show since its inception but never seen it, so the opportunity to see it AND to see Chita Rivera was too good to miss.
A little background: The musical based on the Friedrich Dürrenmatt play was first produced in Chicago in 2001 with a Broadway opening anticipated. In addition to Kander and Ebb the book was by Terrence McNally. It is said that the events of Sept. 11 caused everyone to reconsider if this disturbing musical would find an audience. Another production was done in Virginia in 2008. Both starred Chita Rivera. (Ebb died in 2004).
The original play, written in 1956 and considered a classic of German modern theater, was billed as a comedy-drama though the comedy seems de-emphasized. It tells the story of a much married mega-billionairess who returns to the now-poverty stricken village in middle Europe where she grew up and was ostracized. She offers to save them economically but at a price. She wants them to execute the young man who broke her heart. Obviously there are multiple themes but as in many post-WWII works — the idea of the ability of “ordinary” people to become cruel is a main one.
The Williamstown production has been reduced to a one-act, 95+ minute piece directed by John Doyle. Again Chita Rivera stars and this time, the shopkeeper who was her young love, is played by Roger Rees. In the reduction, many complications of the play have been removed, but I don’t know how much of those were in the longer original musical.
My overall impressions: Chita Rivera is a marvel as Claire Zachanassian. Roger Rees, who plays her former lover Anton, needs to do a musical. With the two of them, the production is balanced and touching. Their younger selves — who hover over the scenes — create an air of mystery and romance. Several numbers are excellent. The program did not list the musical numbers, but I particularly remembered “Love and Love Alone” and “You, You, You.” The problem is that the other characters including the schoolmaster played by Jason Danieley, Judy Kuhn as Anton’s wife Matilde and the others are given very little to do. Their characters need to be fleshed out.
The direction by John Doyle is stylized as fits the work and the scenic design by Scott Pask, costumes by Ann Hould Ward and lighting by Japhy Weideman are all top notch. Graciela Daniele did terrific choreography.
And yes, Chita Rivera can still move and look wonderful.
Will the show move on? There is talk of it but it is not a perfect show yet it deserves more productions. Some may complain about the more “up-beat” ending to the musical but somehow it was what the audience wanted.