Call it "The Visit" revisited. The final production of the Signature Theater's Kander and Ebb festival is an extensive overhaul of the 2001 tuner that premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theater to mixed reviews and little follow-up interest.
Call it “The Visit” revisited. The final production of the Signature Theater’s Kander and Ebb festival is an extensive overhaul of the 2001 tuner that premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theater to mixed reviews and little follow-up interest. New contributions from the reassembled creative team include a modified book by Terrence McNally, reconceived staging by director Frank Galati, new choreography from Ann Reinking and even some original numbers written prior to lyricist Fred Ebb’s death in 2004. The result is a deliciously dark and presumably more fluid tale that deserves renewed attention from the Broadway powers being eagerly courted.
The musical is based on Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s 1956 play about a wealthy woman’s return to the bankrupt Swiss town of her youth to avenge the misdeeds of an old lover. She offers the townsfolk a devil’s bargain — extravagant riches in exchange for the life of the individual who has since become their most popular citizen. (The play was made into a 1964 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn.)
Chita Rivera reprises her role as the unforgiving Claire Zachanassian, heading a cast that includes George Hearn as the beleaguered shopkeeper, Anton Schell (played earlier by John McMartin). Mark Jacoby returns as the town’s opportunistic mayor.
The team has clearly heeded earlier criticism that the show was painfully slow to build, its design excessively quaint and many of its characters too crudely drawn, among other issues.
Gone is an opening pas de deux featuring a younger Claire and Anton, along with several numbers including “All You Need to Know.” Lights now come up on a pensive Anton standing in a trash-strewn village with gathering townsfolk to await the arrival of the world’s richest woman, who might just save the decaying town. A scornful Rivera now appears within minutes, seizing command with a delightfully sarcastic new number, “I Walk Away.” (Some of these revisions were made in anticipation of a proposed Public Theater production in 2003 that never materialized.)
Also introduced at the outset is the tuner’s “Cabaret”-style juxtaposition of conflicting dark and light themes, a key element that lightens the book’s heavy load of angst. The arriving dowager is accompanied by a bizarre entourage of caricatured valets and bodyguards, two of them eunuchs in rose-colored glasses.
It’s a decidedly campy overlay to the leisurely unfolding saga of greed and murder. And while the effect may be unsettling to some, the clear intent is also to underscore Duerrenmatt’s cautionary tale of moral decay.
The polished Signature production offers much to admire, starting with an abundance of enjoyable melodies and clever lyrics from K&E. Standouts include the tender “You, You, You,” cheerful act-one finale “Yellow Shoes,” a sentimental new song for Anton called “I Must Have Been Something” and the lively “I Would Never Leave You.”
With the notable exception of “Yellow Shoes” and a handful of other ensemble numbers, Reinking relies on short, fluid dances and her recognizable transitional moves. In addition, several brief appearances from younger Claire and Anton characters capture the carefree mirth of the earlier time.
The radiant Rivera offers a stylish performance as the aloof Claire, a woman eager to heap disdain on everyone she meets while guardedly avoiding remorse over the dirty plot against her only true love. She handles song and dance assignments with equal aplomb, especially when leading the company in the rousing “I Would Never Leave You” and “The One-Legged Tango.”
Hearn is equally credible as the proud but humble merchant ready to atone for his youthful indiscretions. With his powerful baritone, the performer is thoroughly on top of musical assignments such as the tender “I Know Claire.” Rivera and Hearn also combine for two effective duets.
Galati’s staging works nicely in tandem with McNally’s script revisions to propel the book-driven musical in concise fashion. It’s an intimate experience in Signature’s cozy Max Theater, where the audience sits on three sides of designer Derek McLane’s mostly blank performance space, backed by a balcony and a row of alcoves from which townspeople enter and exit. It also assures maximum impact of the story’s wry touches and painful predicaments encountered en route to the climax.
Not everything works. Trouble spots include an overly contrived act-one number in which the townspeople beg for Claire’s help and a new second-act number, “Fear,” that is curiously minimized. But in its reincarnation, there is sufficient vitality, intrigue and entertaining music to make for a most satisfying “Visit.”