Full disclosure: I have known and represented John Kander, Fred Ebb and Chita Rivera since before they all three knew each other. As a young agent at the Music Corporation of America, I was beginning my own career and was fortunate enough to land these three gifted artists separately and to have played a role in seeing to it that they ultimately met each other. So it was with great pleasure and keen anticipation that I drove into the Berkshires in the heart of Massachusetts to see this, their third outing with The Visit, the final musical in K and E’s vast and glorious oeuvre of musical shows.
Fred Ebb died in 2004, leaving behind four uncompleted projects. Curtains, The Scottsboro Boys and All About Us have been produced on Broadway or in regional and stock theatres, but The Visit, after two very promising false starts in Chicago and Washington, continues its evolution and now comes to the Williamstown Theatre Festival with a new director and a third reshaping of the material. Ebb, Kander and book writer Terrence McNally remain aboard, as does the magical Chita Rivera as the protagonist Claire Zachanassian.
Adjustments have been made to the score, the book, the cast, but the original play by Friedrich Durrenmatt remains the source material. John Doyle, in his second season at the Williamstown Festival, has become the director and it is he who has somewhat simplified the structure and the story of the piece and it now projects a singular vision of a small town called Brachen, “somewhere in Europe”.
The play served Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne on Broadway in 1960, and showed up on screen with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn in 1964. Durrenmott was a Swiss playwright, novelist, philosopher and painter known for his dark and highly stylized writing. He theatricalized vast ideas, undercut them with irony. His play, which first appeared in 1956 under the title Der Besuch der Alten Damen, when translated by Maurice Valency, became The Visit of the Old Woman, shortened to The Visit when Peter Brook brought it to America in 1960.
Now Mr. Doyle and the writers have squeezed its sordid story of revenge into 95 minutes of one act, stripping back stories from the peripheral characters in Brachen (the mayor, the schoolmaster, the priest, the wife and children of the man who years before had betrayed Claire) to better focus on the young love story between Claire and Anton Schell. Graciela Daniele has been given little opportunity to choreograph for though her star is known as the one for whom most of them love to create, this time Claire is an old lady with a wooden leg and a prosthetic hand, one whose body has retained its elegance but no longer cooperates when it comes to dance.
Daniele does, however, stage a charming duet for the older and younger Claire to connect with, as well as a grotesque danse macabre for Claire and her entourage of deformed and blinded bodyguards and attendants. To a sprightly tune she has the despairing villagers dancing up a storm as they sing an ode to the “Yellow Shoes”, their symbol of affluence they expect their visitor will bring to them all. They succeed in entertaining us while demonstrating that it’s material things and lots of them that they want.
But this is not a dance musical. The score, very well orchestrated by Larry Hochman, is moody and melancholic, but lovely and lyrical when needed. Claire has a lament late in the play when she sings of “Love and Love Alone” to a haunting melody supporting some of the saddest lyrics I can remember, matching in mood and loveliness the quality of Rodgers and Hart’s “Spring Is Here” and “Falling In Love With Love” which carry similar sentiments.
Kander draws from his inexhaustible supply of melodies for “You, You, You”, “The Only One”, the earlier mentioned “Yellow Shoes”, and a solo for Jason Daniely as the school master. I can’t give you its name because the program inexplicably omitted all the musical numbers.
Roger Rees, the man Anton from Claire’s past, is in top form, clearly capturing all the guilt and anguish caused by the one wrong choice which colored the rest of his long and unhappy life. From his first entrance to his final acceptance of the responsibility for his life choices, he earns our empathy if not our respect. He may not sing as well as George Hearn or seem even in age as boyishly charming as John McMartin, both of whom played Anton in the earlier trials of The Visit, but he brings to him gravitas and charm and he earns empathy by convincing us he has regretted his youthful weakness and conformity more than he can ever express or atone for. He adds weight to this ardent and uncompromising production.
And now, at last, we come to the first lady of the musical stage who has earned the sobriquet “divine”, as in “The Divine Sarah”. Perhaps that’s not the right adjective. Perhaps there is no one word that says it all about this remarkable creature who has spent over 60 years on stage with only occasional short visits to movies and TV.
She has survived all the thousand natural shocks that Bill Shakespeare warned us about, but, then, so have all of us who have been around a while.. But what’s remarkable about Rivera is that she has lost none of the ability to treat each new project, each new professional relationship as a new beginning. I’ve watched her with the young ones in her shows, and I’ve never heard one of them not acknowledge her as the company leader, the one who sets the standards for on and offstage behavior.
And she treats her talent with respect, acknowledging it was a gift, one that must be nourished and nurtured. It should be made mandatory for all graduating students from the schools that offer training for the performing arts to see her in The Visit if we’re all lucky enough to have its run extended, to have it moved to the New York market place, for there it would be more accessible to many. There is great stillness in her performance of Claire, and it takes her full circle from that first impression most had of her as Anita in West Side Story, for in that landmark performance she was never still – she was fire and ice. And on to the sweet fun Rosie from Bye, Bye Birdie , the tough Velma Kelly in Chicago, the alluring Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman, the life affirming Charity Valentine in Sweet Charity, the Leader in Zorba! All different and now all distilled into this very still and totally commanding Claire Zachanassian.
I’ve been so lucky to have been a footnote to this glorious career, and to the great lady who is living it and handling it with such grace.
The Visit is onstage through August 17, 2014 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.