Book by Terrence McNally, based on the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (adapted by Maurice Valency)
Music by John Kander . Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Signature’s The Visit is compulsory attendance for musical theatre fans. While the score is quite uneven (sometimes disconcertingly harkening back to the era of operetta, however appropriate that style is to the story line), how could one pass on an opportunity to see two leads who both are two-time Tony winners and undisputed Broadway legends? Ours is but to worship Chita Rivera (West Side Story; Bye Bye Birdie; Chicago; The Rink; Kiss of the Spider Woman; and the movie Sweet Charity, to touch on some of the choicest highlights) and George Hearn (Sweeney Todd; La Cage aux Folles; Sunset Boulevard; Putting It Together; and Wicked)? No praise of their talent is sufficient.
Rivera is incandescent as dowager Claire Zachanassian, whose humorously acerbic veneer belies a wounded heart and soul. Hearn, as Anton, is a kind of Everyman archetype in this allegory, the victimizer now a victim, and his gift is to breathe humanity and, thus, sympathy, into an otherwise despicable character. The Rivera-Hearn scenes elevate a sometimes wobbly production; in their capable hands, art is not only easy, it’s second nature.
I needn’t worry about revealing too much plot because, as an allegory, the core existential dilemma, not the story per se, is the key. Though written in 1956, Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, heralded as a masterpiece of 20th century German-language literature, seems a cross between a 19th Century melodrama and a contemporary satire. Claire Zachanassian (Chita Rivera) fled a mythical central-European town (in the original play, the town name translates as Manure). As a pregnant teen not only rejected by her lover but betrayed by the legal system from which she sought redress, Claire survived in spades, careening from prostitution through a succession of wealthy husbands to become the richest widow in the world. Her ex-lover/nemesis, Anton (George Hearn), abandoned her to marry the town shopkeeper’s daughter and thereby secure his fortune. Flash forward roughly 40 years and Claire’s agents have purchased virtually all property and economic enterprise in and surrounding her hometown. Claire secretly has pulled the financial carpet out from under such that all of her former townsfolk are now impoverished, and despondently so. Thus Claire’s devil’s bargain: kill Anton and she will endow the town collectively as well as each resident individually with wealth beyond their wildest dreams.
Playwright Dürrenmatt was known to represent the play as a comedy. Well, in a culture which invented the word “schadenfreude,” this story is no doubt a barrel of laughs. Terrence McNally’s adaptation is very faithful to the original, deliciously spiced with some delightful Bette Davis-like barbs for Claire to toss off.
The story is abetted by extraordinary production values. Derek McLane’s set is elegant, creating the perfect atmosphere for the action. Aged bricks and weathered boards set the tone. As the audience enters, they find a stage littered with debris: crates, barrels, worn suitcases, battered bird cages, a tricycle, abandoned and bare toy dolls, and more, somewhat reminiscent of the movie, The King of Hearts, another Western European allegory. It is clear that this is not a happy place. The set design throughout is spare but spot on. Howell Binkley’s lighting is magic. He has not made a wrong choice and the opening of the second act is a work of art, an image that will long stay in my mind and, I trust, in yours.
After a bumpy start in the new building, Signature’s sound problems are deader than a staked vampire – deathly, dying, doornail dead (the phrase is stolen, the sentiment not). Kudos to Matt Rowe whose signature is a pin dropping: every syllable, every note registers. Susan Hilferty has the daunting task of costuming two shows in one. The townsfolk must look bedraggled. Think Grapes of Wrath or Signature’s triumphant Urinetown. Then Hilferty must tackle the fabulously wealthy Claire and her entourage. Here she clearly embraced the challenge. Claire is a vision in white or red or black, especially her wedding gown, and her hair is a Pre-Raphaelite dream of lushes red tresses.
Mark Jacoby, as the Mayor of this little dying town, is our master of ceremonies for much of the evening. In the current election season in which we find ourselves, Jacoby would be the consummate statesman: “You wouldn’t terribly mind dying, would you, as a civic duty, of course?” As Anton’s wife Matilda, Karen Murphy had no idea when she “married down” just how low she was going. One casting disconnect has to do with her and Anton’s offspring. If Anton, in his early 20’s, left Claire to marry Matilda, why – forty years later – are their children not middle-aged? Overall, the supporting performers are truly fine.
Director Frank Galati keeps the production moving, beautifully framing the action. The incomparable Ann Reinking, actor, dancer, choreographer, has the unenviable role of making this production dance. No problem, you say, when the leading lady is among the most acclaimed dancers of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Nevertheless, how to choreograph a leading lady whose character has a prosthetic hand and a wooden leg? True, Chita Rivera makes most other dancers seem lame by comparison. Here Chita stifles her dancing soul to let the dramatic actor in her soar. Brava! At any rate, Reinking soldiers on, giving us “The One-Legged Tango,” amusing to be sure, but not to be confused with “Cell Block Tango.”
The crew supporting Claire — her butler, two body guards, and two castrato – are powerful icons. Unfortunately, the castrato seem an unholy result of the union of Cabaret‘s emcee and Chicago‘s Mary Sunshine. I also immediately flashed on the image of the blinded wicked stepsisters in Sondheim’s Into the Woods. That would make for some double date. The quirkiness of these characters does add a good deal of interst to the production.
Very uncharacteristic of a Kander & Ebb score, there are only two or three songs which satisfy – largely attributable to the genius of Rivera and Hearn. Not surprisingly, the choicest numbers are reserved for Claire, such as “Winter” and “Love and Love Alone.” Anton’s stand out song, “You,You, You,” captures his adoration of Claire. “A Happy Ending” brackets the show, occurring early in Act 1 and serving as the finale, reflecting the townspeople’s optimism in the former and ambivalence in the latter. The schoolmaster (Jeremy Webb) remains steadfastly apart from the townsfolk as Anton’s lone ally until he too is broken by the pressure to conform, as he confesses to Anton in “The Only One.” The symbol of the citizen’s willingness to throw Anton overboard for prosperity’s sake are the pairs of bright new yellow shoes which veritably fly out of Anton’s store as they are bought “on credit” by the same folks whose initial rejection of Claire’s bargain was decidedly indignant. Reinking’s biggest dance number, “Yellow Shoes,” closes Act 1 with much flare, but unlike Fosse’s trademark white gloves, I doubt Reinking would choose to be remembered for DayGlo footware.
As much as I enjoyed “Winter,” “You, You, You,” and “Love and Love Alone,” and suspect that my appreciation for the entire score might grow with repeated listening, that is a very uncharacteristic and disappointing reaction to the work of Kander and Ebb, reminding me of their earlier, less than triumphant Signature premiere, the ill-fated Over and Over based on the Thorton Wilders’ The Skin of Our Teeth. Their current Broadway smash hit, Curtains, in stark contrast, shows the songwriting duo at their best.
If you love musical theatre, you won’t want to miss this uneven but remarkable production.
Run Time: 2.5 with one intermission
- When: Thru June 22nd. Tues – Thurs at 7:30 pm; Sat & Sat at 8 pm; Sun at 7 pm; matinees Sat & Sun at 2 pm
- Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Shirlington, VA
- Tickets: $66 – $77. Discounts Available. Info on the website.