When the wealthiest woman in the world returns to her bankrupt hometown in The Visit, reactions range from “Her dress, her jewels…like a great film star!” to “half-Jewish, half-gypsy, 100% illegitimate: All her money won’t erase those stains” to “She’s come back to save us.”
Audience reaction to Chita Rivera in the role is more uniform, welcoming back to Broadway the performer who originated such characters as Anita in West Side Story, Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie , Velma in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, and Aurora in Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman.
Claire Zachanassian — the fourth character that Rivera is portraying in a musical by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb (who died in 2004) – is different from any of her previous roles. She still has a dancer’s grace, but it is invested in straight-backed stillness, as if any casual movement would betray vulnerability to the townspeople on whom she is planning her revenge. She will show them only her cruel smile.
Rivera first performed as Claire in 2001, when this adaptation of a 1956 play by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, with a book written by Terrence McNally (the playwright best-known for Master Class, a frequent Kander and Ebb collaborator.) It has taken 14 years — with much fiddling — for the musical to get to Broadway.
The Visit that has now opened at the Lyceum Theatre is a grotesque parable of greed and an odd look at love. Filled with mordant humor and haunting melodies, it depicts a grim Brecht/Weill world of misery and corruption. At its best, the musical provokes some disturbing questions, and offers a kind of gruesome, Expressionist beauty — with its maleficent ruin of a railway station designed by Scott Pask, merciless lighting by Japhy Weideman, and class-conscious costumes by Ann Hould-Ward.
But it may also disappoint and confuse theatergoers expecting the kind of dark but vibrantly entertaining shows, like Cabaret and Chicago, with which Kander and Ebb built their popularity. The Visit is only 90 minutes long and without an intermission, but, as directed by John Doyle (best-known for his reimagining of Sondheim classics Company, Sweeney Todd and Passion), much of the show seems slowed down, dirge-like; a stylized, symbol-laden horror story at a funereal pace.
Claire is returning to Brachen (“a small town somewhere in Europe”), some half century after she was driven away, scorned, impoverished, and forced into prostitution. But, as she explains in the clever song “I Walk Away” (one of 21 in the show), “I married very often and I widowed very well.” Armed with the power that comes from wealth, she returns with a bizarre entourage and a monstrous offer: She will donate billions to the town, and to each citizen in it. “On one condition….I want the life of Anton Schell.”
Anton Schell was her first lover when they were both still students, but he betrayed and abandoned her, in order to marry the daughter of the town’s shopkeeper and take over his store.
The town fathers are aghast at Claire’s proposal, and indignantly reject it…at first.
If the outcome is predictable, the events unfold in layers that are inventive and often surprising — visual short-hand, a literal song and dance, a witty lyric, a devastating detail. We learn the awful dimensions of Anton’s cruel betrayal, but also the staggeringly vicious depths to which Claire has sunk in exacting her revenge.
Most startling of all, we see that Claire and Anton are still in love with one other. This is made clear not only in their dialogue and their body language, but in the ghostly presence of their young selves — Young Anton and Young Claire (portrayed by John Riddle and Michele Veintimilla) who engage in erotically tinged ballets choreographed by Graciela Daniele when they are not just haunting the stage.
Now, this is not a love we are used to. Claire after all wants Anton dead. For his part, Anton, portrayed masterfully as a broken-down man by Roger Rees, is delusional, forgetting completely his cruelty, remembering only the happy times. He, in effect, is rewriting history – the way, say, Dürrenmatt’s Swiss countrymen later recast their “neutrality” during the Nazi horrors.
The questions that The Visit inspires leave us uneasy. Can justice be bought – and if so, is it really justice? Are principles a luxury reserved for the poor? Even: What is love?
The Visit is on stage at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street (between 6th and 7th Aves), New York, NY 10036
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Editor’s note: Readers may remember The Visit starring Chita Rivera, produced by Signature Theatre in 2008.