Lyceum Theatre 149 W. 45th Street
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, an uncompromising tale of revenge and human weakness, has taken an unusually long time to play in New York. It was originally scheduled to open in March of 2001 with Angela Lansbury in the lead. When Lansbury withdrew, Chita Rivera stepped in and played it in Chicago, where it got good reviews but no forward momentum to open here. Rivera played The Visit periodically for years after this initial run until a one-act version of the musical opened at Williamstown last year under the direction of John Doyle. And now at last, after so many years of stalling, Rivera is opening The Visit on Broadway. All the time she spent playing and refining it has resulted in a production that seems like the last bitter flowering of a certain kind of 1970s American musical, perfectly judged, tuneful, biting, and nearly Brechtian in its cerebral formalism.
Rivera plays Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, who comes back to her impoverished hometown to see her first love, the aptly named Anton Schell (Roger Rees), who is himself a shell of his former self, as drably crushed and malnourished as the ruined place he lives in. Younger versions of Claire and Anton (played by dancers Michelle Veintimilla and John Riddle) are often present on stage here to express the youthful passion that once bound the former lovers together, and Doyle gracefully moves them in and out of the action and has them subtly react to the main drama.
Claire, who has buried many husbands, claims that she is un-killable, and she doesn’t let an artificial leg and an artificial arm slow her down. Within a restricted physical framework, Rivera shows that great dance can be a matter of raising an arm in just the right way, or making a small movement of a shoulder speak volumes; she works dance wonders when kicking Claire’s false leg stiffly in the air. When Rivera unleashes some strategic pelvic movements during a dance number with Claire’s two faithful eunuchs, the effect is galvanizing and down and dirty, expressing Claire’s still-pulsing lust for life.
But Claire’s lust has turned monstrous. She offers the town an enormous amount of money if they will kill Anton, and the main drama of The Visit is watching the townspeople argue with their own consciences and slowly succumb to material greed. There is nothing obvious or heavy-handed here about the handling of the main theme, and this musical version stays true to the whip-cracking toughness of Dürrenmatt’s material without ever over-doing its essential morbidity. In fact, the music by Kander emphasizes the Wagnerian romanticism at the heart of the bond between Claire and Anton, especially in the way the main love theme “You, You, You” comes back toward the end in an entirely discordant way, as if the lovely melody itself has begun to rot. This is a well-earned triumph for the legendary Rivera and for everyone involved.