There’s a delicious moment in the reworked musical “The Visit” when Chita Rivera, playing Claire Zachanassian, the world’s richest woman, speaks of her eventful, much-widowed life and her near-death experiences that claimed several of her limbs. She ends her tale with the deadpan declarative: “I’m un-killable.” You could say the same thing about the 2001 show, brought back to life by the Williamstown Theater Festival in a revamped and much-shortened version that proves often entertaining but only occasionally captivating. This elegiac production’s commercial potential is iffy, but the plot’s morality conundrum is surefire — a musical “What Would You Do?” — and theater faithful will certainly want to revisit, if only to see Rivera in a juicy starring role.
The musical by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (“Chicago,” “Cabaret”) has had a series of false starts and near misses since its 2001 premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, where it opened to mixed reviews. Following a 2008 revival at Virginia’s Signature Theater, the tuner has taken on fresh collaborators in director John Doyle and choreographer Graciela Daniele, as well as a new leading man, Roger Rees, to star opposite Rivera, who’s been with the project all along in the killer lead role.
Dressed here in Ann Hould Ward’s ice-queen outfits, Rivera is the lioness in winter: magisterial, cunning and absolutely frozen in her mission as Claire returns to the poor, post-war European town of her youth, offering the gift of her billions.
But there’s a catch for the desperate town that once shunned her. In exchange for the money, she wants the life of Anton (Rees), the man who did her wrong when she was 17 and who is now an old, failed shopkeeper with a miserable wife Matilde (Judy Kuhn) and grown children (Melanie Field, Jude McCormick).
Terrence McNally’s book mostly follows Friedrich Durrenmatt’s dark and disturbing 1956 play about revenge, greed and hypocrisy. But McNally and Doyle give it a love story that spans the ages, however macabre: A couple (Michelle Veintimilla, John Bambery) represent Claire and Anton when they were young and happy, and remain on stage almost throughout as a constant reminder of a passion that will not fade. This Claire struggles with her romantic soul, too, in her own way.
Kander and Ebb’s score balances the cynical story with showbiz savvy, atmospheric motifs and lilting ballads. There’s a haunting song, “Love and Love Alone,” in which the older Claire sublimely dances with her younger self, and “Yellow Shoes,” terrifically staged by Daniele, is a chilling razzmatazz number that’s as good as any from “Cabaret,” “Chicago” or “The Scottsboro Boys.”
But Anton’s songs aren’t top drawer, and a song of shame by the schoolmaster (Jason Danieley) comes well after we know where he stands. Other musical opportunities are missed along the way: Anton’s scene with his daughter begs for a song, but instead we get a family-outing number with little emotional impact.
Despite the weakness of some of his material, Rees gives a powerful and complex performance as Anton goes from village loser to potential hero, before meeting his fate with fear, resignation and grace. The cast of strong singers is first-rate in roles that are more archetypical and symbolic than substantial.