Thanks to very adroit casting from Frank Galati, a clutch of gorgeous melodies from John Kander, and an overall theatrical tone that pierces the skin with its mysteries and complexities, "The Visit" rumbles unmistakably with the heft, substance and originality of a significant new American musical.

Thanks to very adroit casting from Frank Galati, a clutch of gorgeous melodies from John Kander, and an overall theatrical tone that pierces the skin with its mysteries and complexities, “The Visit” rumbles unmistakably with the heft, substance and originality of a significant new American musical. But given the mind-numbing difficulty of the current climate for dark and disturbing tuners, those hoping for a Broadway future for “The Visit” need to exorcise much esoteric directorial clutter and better focus this slow-to-build, woolly and oft-excessive Kander and Ebb musical on accessible human truths.

The palpable strengths of this potentially harrowing piece about a rich old woman looking to wreck havoc on her inhospitable but now impoverished childhood town include a dynamic, resolutely unsentimental performance from Chita Rivera. She’s assuredly a better match for the avenger Claire Zachanassian than would have been the case with Angela Lansbury, who was originally attached to this project. Stripped down, unpretentious and immensely poignant as poor Anton Schell, the impoverished Swiss shopkeeper facing an ex-lover with murderous revenge on her mind, John McMartin is also excellent in this premiere at Chi’s Goodman Theater.

There’s already a thoroughly provocative and memorable blend of tuneful K & E ballads (“You, You, You”), witty specialty numbers (“I Would Never Leave You”) and deliciously cynical show-stoppers like the fabulous act one close, a nasty tapper called “Yellow Shoes.” Ebb is at his sardonic lyrical best here.

The show is under-choreographed (and badly needs more legit dance numbers, wooden-legged antiheroine or no), but there are still some arresting moves from Ann Reinking, who’s clearly responsible for the intriguing visual stylization. And Terrence McNally’s striking, smart book is both appropriately faithful to the Durrenmatt original and evocative of its ideological complexities and uncompromising moral probing.

But there are also some serious problems, not the least of which is a first act that takes far too long to get to the central dramatic issue, and a climax at which Claire, the most important character, is trapped way up stage where we can barely see her face. There’s also some awkwardness involving how much we see of Young Anton and Claire. The show badly needs more backstory for the non-Durrenmatt aficionados — a “Carousel”-like waif wafting around in white does not do it.

Still, most of that could be fixed with a couple of judicious cuts and a little narrative and directorial rejiggering.

But there’s a far more pivotal nut to split here — and it’s surely the key to the show’s future. If it’s to find the broad audience that would sustain a Broadway run and would be willing to take an expensive and painful journey into Durrenmattian musical allegory, “The Visit” will need to home directly in on the central questions contained in this material.

This means the show needs to make us ask some painful internal questions: Do I deserve condemnation for past mistakes? Would I sacrifice a worthless friend for money? And, most tellingly of all right now, how much satisfaction would I get from violent revenge?

This requires characters who are believable as people. In the case of Claire and Anton, this is, for the most part, achieved brilliantly. But in the first act, at least, the townspeople and most supporting players are currently performed as if they were cuckoo-clock archetypes. Aside from one hideous first-act number in which the villagers put on a show-within-a-show broadly lampooning themselves (which makes no sense at all, given their desperation), this choice does serious damage elsewhere.

The members of Anton’s family (a vital point of empathy) vacillate confusingly from realistic figures to murderous stereotypes (the show can’t have it both ways). Claire’s motley crew of butlers and hangers-on are, of course, intended to be eccentric creations. But they still need to be credible in this world — and, currently, they are not.

One suspects that the creative team was worried about the darkness of the fare. But there’s enough witty irony in McNally’s book to take care of the wry humor — and enough musical brilliance to catch the breath. All “The Visit” has to do to be asked back is play it deeply, humanly, sweetly and devastatingly straight.

The Visit

Goodman Theater; 856 seats; $55 top

Production

A Goodman Theater production of a musical in two acts with book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play of the same name by Friedrich Durrenmatt. Directed by Frank Galati. Choreographed by Ann Reinking.

Creative

Sets, Derek McLane; lights, Brian MacDevitt; costumes, Susan Hilferty; sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; orchestrations, Michael Gibson; musical direction and vocal and dance arrangements, David Loud; production stage manager, Joseph Drummond. Goodman Theater artistic director, Robert Falls. Opened Oct. 1, 2001, reviewed Sept. 30. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Claire Zachanassian - Chita Rivera
Anton Schell - John McMartin
The Schoolmaster - Steven Sutcliffe
The Mayor - Mark Jacoby
The Mayor's Wife - McKinley Carter
The Doctor - Jim Corti
The Priest - Jonathan Weir
The Police Inspector - Joseph Dellger
Young Anton - Brian Herriott
Young Claire - Tina Cannon
Matilda Schell - Ami Silvestre
Karl - Guy Adkins
Ottilie - Cristen Paige
Rudi - James Harms
Louis Perch - Mark Crayton
Jacob Chicken - Raymond Zrinsky
Lenny - Rob Hatzenbeller
Benny - Matt Orlando
With: Scott Calcagno, Tina Cannon, Roberta Duchak, John Eskola, Rosalyn Rahn Keirns, Leisa Mather, Adam Pelty, Greg Walter, Bernie Yvon.
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