“My God, it’s even worse than I remembered.” What an entrance line! And Chita Rivera relishes every nuance of it in her elegant turn as the mysterious woman in “The Visit,” Terrence McNally’s take on Friedrich Durrenmatt’s macabre tale of the death of love and the lust for vengeance. Like the Swiss dramatist, helmer John Doyle is comfortable in the austere style of German Expressionism, as are kindred spirits John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics). The show is more literary piece than conventional musical. But it has a dark, sinister beauty — and who could resist a visit from Chita?
If ever a star deserved her moment of triumph, it’s this 82-year-old belle dame, who was hell-bent on bringing this offbeat Kander and Ebb musical to Gotham. It took 14 years and four passes — an ill-timed 2001 production at the Goodman, a Signature Theater presentation in 2008, a one-night stand at a benefit for the Actors Fund in 2011, and one more tryout at Williamstown last summer — before Chita could finally walk onto a Broadway stage as Claire Zachanassian, the vengeful woman who returns to Brachen, her wretched birthplace “somewhere in Europe,” in search of Anton Schell (Roger Rees), the lover who wronged her so many years ago.
And what a commanding figure she strikes, dressed by Ann Hould-Ward in full-length white furs and dripping with jewels, and attended by a bizarre entourage in sunglasses, wearing bright yellow shoes and gloves with formalwear, and carrying canes. The tall, lean and decidedly menacing Rudi (Tom Nelis) is not only her butler, but the former chief justice of the town. Her two bodyguards Louis Perch (Matthew Deming) and Jacob Chicken (Chris Newcomer) are blind eunuchs, and they, too, figure in her past.
Strangest of all, there’s a shiny black casket among Madame’s many trunks — although not the black panther that came with the original play.
But the townspeople are too desperate to notice — or care — and with the cool irony typical of an Ebb lyric, they join the fabulously rich Claire to celebrate her homecoming in “At Last.” But it also escapes their notice that they’re singing at cross-purposes.
As Scott Pask’s splendidly ravaged set of the town railroad station shows us, Brachen has fallen on very hard times, indeed. Having apparently sat out the war (as did Switzerland), Brachen wasn’t bombed by either side. But despite that (or perhaps, because of it), the town looks like a bomb site and is very much in need of a new school, a new hospital, and a whole new municipal infrastructure.
“At long, long last,” these miserable people rejoice, “She’s here to stay.” To save them, they assume. To which Claire responds, in Chita’s husky mezzo, “Or just to play.”
Anton is sure that Claire has returned to rekindle their love, and in two cruelly funny solos, “I know Claire” and “I Must Have Been Something,” he preens himself on his sex appeal. (“I really was grand / She truly adored me.”) Graciela Danielle validates that memory by choreographing some exquisite dances (to “You, You, You”) for Young Anton (John Riddle) and Young Claire (Michelle Veintimilla) to re-live their long-ago romance in the language of dance.
But love is the last thing on Claire’s mind. It’s vengeance she wants, for the shameful way that Anton betrayed her all those years ago. So, she’ll gladly throw billions of dollars to the town that wickedly conspired in the act of injustice that drove her from her home. But the town must first deliver Anton to her — dead.
Although everyone initially recoils from this inhuman proposition, the only person who seems genuinely conflicted is Friedrich Kuhn (played with conviction by Jason Danieley), the schoolteacher who is Anton’s best friend. And in due time, Anton’s greedy neighbors start buying new clothes and doo-dads, all in the bright and shiny yellow that stands for gold.
Like the play, McNally’s musical treatment of the central dilemma doesn’t add much tension to what seems a foregone conclusion. And, like the play, it begins well and ends well, but sags in the middle. The real problem, it seems, is the inadequacy of Anton’s soul-searching about his own guilt. Rees looks very much like someone who’s going through hell, and he expresses it well in “Fear.” But this morally shabby character hasn’t got an ethical leg to stand on.
Kander just can’t help himself. Even in what may well be his darkest work, he writes beautiful romantic melodies. So there are some lovely moments in this show — specifically, those moments when love and forgiveness seem to stand a chance. Chita and Rees are captivating when they find themselves “In the Forest Again,” where they once made love. And Chita is breathtaking in “Love and Love Alone,” the gorgeous ballad for the pas de deux in which she dances with her own younger self.
But taken in the context of the material, love and forgiveness don’t really stand a chance in the heart of a vengeful woman.