“The Visit” May Be the Last Kander & Ebb Musical — and It Is Compelling

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Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 The Visit which opened at the Lyceum Theater for a limited Broadway run may be the last “new” Kander and Ebb musical that will we see.

When Fred Ebb died in 2004, several musicals were “in progress”; The Visit is the third to make it to Broadway.  First came Curtains in 2006 and then The Scottsboro Boys in 2010 with Kander writing additional lyrics.  (Another show, now called All About Us based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth had a production at Westport Country Playhouse in 2007.)

The Visit is based on the play by the same name written by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt in 1956. Dürrenmatt, like Brecht, wrote epic theater that explored political subjects that often reflected the issues of World War II and the post war European world. Though he billed The Visit as a “comedy-drama,”  it is less humorous than satiric or ironic.

John Riddle and Roger Rees
John Riddle and Roger Rees

It tells the story of a much married mega-billionairess  (Claire Zachannassian) 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 man (Anton Schell) who when they were young  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.

While the townspeople are initially horrified, the lure of her ability to raise them from poverty soon becomes very attractive.  During her visit to the town, accompanied by a servant and two eunuchs, she meets with the man, Anton, who had done her wrong.

At the same time, we see their younger selves act out their pasts in dance.

This piece originally interested Angela Lansbury who was to star with Philip Bosco in early 2001 but dropped out due to her husband’s ill health;  Chita Rivera took over and has remained and championed this show since its initial production with John McMartin in 2001 in Chicago. At that time it was a full-length musical and scheduled to come to Broadway.  It was post Sept. 11 and investors got nervous about the dark qualities of the show; the production was shelved.  A production in 2008 at the Signature Theater featured Rivera and George Hearn; a benefit concert in 2011 featured Rivera and John Cullum.

Last summer, director John Doyle worked with Kander and book writer Terrence McNally to trim the piece to one act (90 minutes) and it was performed at the Williamstown Theater Festival with many of the same cast in the Broadway production.

John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla. Photo by Joan Marcus
John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla. Photo by Joan Marcus

The Visit is a musical that will make you think about human nature, the need for revenge and the power of love.  It also strikes a number of symbolic notes as well, reinforced by costume designer Ann Hould-Ward and scenic designer Scott Pask.

Chita Rivera is the star and let me say she is magnificent. She looks great and given her age, moves well.  Her costumes are a glamorous contrast to the drabness of the townspeople who are mired in poverty and despair.  She captures Claire’s absolute control and need to dominate. This is a woman who has planned her revenge over a period of years: it has kept her going.  But the question is why? Does she wants the revenge because she hates Anton and what he did to her, or is there a desire — however unacknowledged — that he was her true love and she needs to recapture him?  Each audience member can decide for him or herself which is true.

Roger Rees is every bit Rivera’s equal as Anton. He is a man who settled — married the shopkeeper’s daughter — for economic security but who has failed as the town has failed.  He does not believe that the townspeople will sacrifice him but soon comes to accept that even his wife and children are seduced by what the money can buy.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus

The Kander and Ebb score contains some gems, that I can’t wait to hear again — and perhaps to even sing. You will leave the theater humming  “You, You, You” and “Love and Love Alone” as well as “I Must Have Been Something.” This is a first rate score.

Photo by Joan Maracus
Photo by Joan Maracus

Jason Danieley is the school teacher and David Garrison is the mayor of the town. Each wrestles with the moral decision in various ways and lets us see their conflict.

As Anton’s wife, Mary Beth Peil brings a hard but also tender edge to the part.

The younger selves of Claire and Anton, Michelle Veintmilla and John Riddle are radiant dancing the parts of the young lovers. The pas de deux with Young Claire and Rivera is touching.

Special praise should be given to scenic designer Scott Pask for his bleak, industrial set and for lighting designer Japhy Weideman who focuses the light where it need to be.

Graciela Daniele did the choreography that makes the most of the two younger selves giving them lyrical and romantic dances and provides Rivera with just enough movement.

If you want your musicals all sweetness and light, with glitter and chorus girls, The Visit will not be for you.  But if you want a compelling story and music that enhances the story and its impact, than The Visit is a show to put on your “must see” list.

The Visit is at the Lyceum Theater, 149 W. 45th. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

Chita Rivera and Michelle Veintimlla. Photo by Joan Marcus
Chita Rivera and Michelle Veintimlla. Photo by Joan Marcus

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