|Chita Rivera is positively captivating as the mysterious, possibly malevolent woman at the center of Kander and Ebb's The Visit.|
Octogenarian Chita Rivera returns to Broadway in the final collaboration between songwriting powerhouses John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, and the resulting production is the most bizarrely fascinating new musical of the season. Thrillingly theatrical and unapologetically boundary pushing, The Visit is a dark musical fable that slowly seeps under your skin, spellbinding in its sheer audacity and brazen subversion of expectations. A fitting end to one of the most legendary partnerships in musical theatre history, John Doyle directs the piece with a sublimely chilling efficiency that highlights the many pleasures of both the show and Rivera's star turn, which is yet another jewel in her vast crown of iconic performances.
Scott Pask's gorgeously decrepit scenic design instantly sets the mood for the dark, occasionally disturbing tale that follows, which finds the mysterious and ethereal Claire Zachanassian returning to her hometown after decades abroad. Now the world's wealthiest woman, Claire arrives with a butler and two blind eunuchs in tow, only to find the formerly prosperous town in economic ruin. Having heard of her impending arrival, the townspeople have gathered to beg Claire to use some of her vast fortune to restore the town's former glory, something she agrees to do provided certain conditions are met. The wealthy benefactor's ghastly demands shock the townspeople, hitting her former lover Anton particularly close to home.
Revealing too much more about the plot would spoil the surprise, so suffice it to say that Claire is not a woman to be trifled with. The more you learn about what she's done in her time away the more appalling she appears, and yet Kander, Ebb, and bookwriter Terrance McNally treat Claire not just with understanding but also genuine compassion. She has her reasons for what she's done, and it soon becomes clear that the townsfolk are no saints either, creating an excitingly complex web of moral ambiguity that sees the audience's allegiances shifting from moment to moment. The Visit explores several hallmarks of Kander and Ebb's long career, such as the easily corruptible nature of justice, society's habitual shirking of responsibility, and an unending compassion for the victims of civilization's flawed systems even when said victims have become rather unsavory people themselves.
Musically, The Visit is glorious and intoxicatingly dark. The songs aren't as catchy as the pair's most famous compositions (sadly, Mr. Kander has not provided us with a vamp as instantly memorable as the opening measures of Cabaret's "Wilkommen" or Chicago's "All That Jazz"), but they are hauntingly beautiful and a continual auditory treat. Over the course of its long development the show has been condensed down to one act from the original two, and occasionally you can see where McNally's book scenes were cut to allow more space for the score. The reduced length ultimately works tonally and structurally for the piece - there's not quite enough material to sustain two full acts - but certain scenes and characters would benefit from a little more exploration. McNally's ability to convey a large amount of exposition clearly and concisely is rather admirable, and the fact that he squeezes in enough character moments to keep the cast at least somewhat sympathetic should be commended.
Doyle keeps everything moving along at a fast clip, displaying such a firm understanding of the show's tone and themes that you never once feel confused or disoriented even when the specific details of the plot become hard to follow. His staging is starkly beautiful, augmented by Ann Hould-Ward's costumes and Japhy Weideman's exceptional lighting design. There is a wonderful simplicity to Doyle's work that feels anything but simplistic, and the director has enough trust in his audience and the material that he never succumbs to the urge to spell things out too clearly.
The cast is first rate, anchored by Rivera in a wonderfully layered performance that draws you in from the moment she appears. Few can command a stage the way Rivera does, looking positively regal with her white gown and perfectly poised posture. Not a single gesture or facial expression is wasted, and the actress radiates a mesmerizing mixture of calculated coldness and unbridled joy that is infectious. Her original leading man, Roger Rees, has unfortunately been sidelined due to health issues, but understudy turned replacement Tom Nelis does wonderful work as Anton. In many ways The Visit is as much Anton's story as Claire's, and the two veteran performers bring a wonderful amount of nuance to their onstage relationship.
The supporting cast is just as strong, stacked with so much talent it is almost an embarrassment of riches. As the phantoms of young Claire and Anton, Michelle Veintimilla and John Riddle are fantastically otherworldly and exceedingly well matched. As Anton's wife Matilde, Mary Beth Peil convincingly charts the host of reactions her character has to arrival of Claire and the revelations about her husband's past. Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer make for pitch perfect eunuchs, simultaneously off-putting and transfixing. And Jason Danieley is sensational as the local schoolteacher who most opposes Claire's deal, delivering a spine-tingling and heart-wrenching rendition of the soaring "The Only One" two-thirds of the way through the evening.
It took a lot of guts to produce something as unflinchingly bizarre as The Visit on Broadway, and artistically that gamble has paid off in spades. Kander and Ebb's haunting final show is a fitting summation of their long career, one which has produced some of the most enduring and important works in the musical theatre cannon. John Doyle's visually captivating production does the material justice, and Chita Rivera proves that even at 82 she's still one of the most formidable singing actresses around. Anyone looking for a boundary pushing evening at the Broadway theatre need look no further, as this is a Visit well worth making.