BWW Reviews: Chita Rivera Makes it Worth THE VISIT to Williamstown Theatre Festival
Book by Terrence McNally, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb; Based on the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Translated by Maurice Valency; Scenic Design, Scott Pask; Costume Design, Ann Hould Ward; Lighting Design, Japhy Weideman; Sound Design, Dan Moses Schreier; Hair & Wig Design, Paul Huntley; Production Stage Manager, Libby Unsworth; Director of Production, Eric Nottke; Casting, Calleri Casting; Music Direction & Arrangements, David Loud; Orchestrations, Larry Hochman; Choreographed by Graciela Daniele; Directed by John Doyle
CAST (in alphabetical order): John Bambery, Jason Danieley, Matthew Deming, Diana DiMarzio, Melanie Field, David Garrison, Rick Holmes, Judy Kuhn, Jude McCormick, Tom Nelis, Chris Newcomer, Aaron Ramey, Roger Rees, Chita Rivera, Timothy Shew, Michelle Veintimilla
Performances through August 17 on the Main Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA; Box Office 413-597-3400 or www.wtfestival.org
Broadway legend Chita Rivera makes her Williamstown Theatre Festival debut opposite Festival favorite and former Artistic Director Roger Rees in the newest incarnation of Kander and Ebb's The Visit, the musical based on the 1956 tragicomedy by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, with book by Terrence McNally. Director John Doyle has reimagined it as a one-act with a focus on the love story, and his collaboration with Choreographer Graciela Daniele results in a show that makes movement a vital component to convey elements of the narrative without words.
The Visit has traveled a circuitous and rocky road to the Main Stage at WTF, losing and adding key players along the way. First announced in 1998 with Angela Lansbury in the leading role (she withdrew to care for her ailing husband), Rivera stepped in for a six-week run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in the fall of 2001. The attacks on September 11th squashed hopes of taking the show to New York, and lyricist Fred Ebb died in 2004, leaving Kander to handle both words and music. In 2008, a staging at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, received mixed reviews and never made it further north.
With the vision of a new director and the nurturing environment of Williamstown, there is an electric feeling around this version of The Visit. The combined creative experience and talents of Doyle, Kander, McNally, and Daniele, augmented by an inspired design team, lays a sturdy foundation for the gifted artists who appear on the stage. Scenic Designer Scott Pask's post-apocalyptic set, in harmony with an array of lighting effects and angles designed by Japhy Weideman, provides an aura of decay and despair, while Ann Hould Ward's costumes show a stark contrast between the bankrupt townspeople (drab, soiled clothing) and the wealthy visitor (all in white, with fur and bejeweled) and her entourage. They are further differentiated by their makeup (Angelina Avallone) and hair and wig designs (Paul Huntley), with the former group notable for their grimy appearances and the latter for her radiant, regal bearing.
Make no mistake, Rivera is Broadway royalty and she infuses her character with self-confidence and assertiveness, bordering on controlled aggression. Even though she walks stiffly with a cane to compensate for an artificial leg, Claire Zachanassian holds her head high and suggests power with her steely gaze and an economy of movement. She is returning to the small European town of Brachen where she was a girl with an offer to rescue the residents from poverty, having achieved her wealth from marrying often and widowing well. The drama comes from the unusual nature of the bargain Claire dangles, attaching the gargantuan sum of money to her plan for vengeance against a former lover. Fifty years earlier, Anton Schell (Rees) betrayed her and Claire wants his life as payment. Naturally, the villagers are aghast and Schell, believing that Claire wished to rekindle their romance, is incredulous and crestfallen.
Anton is a poor soul with a sardonic wife (Judy Kuhn) and ungrateful children (Melanie Field, Jude McCormick) whose life hasn't turned out as he expected. Rees does a marvelous job of capturing both his disappointment and his hope that perhaps Claire's arrival is a harbinger of better fortunes. Although Anton ("I Must Have Been Something") and Claire ("Winter") each sing about those days of long ago, it is the presence of Young Anton (John Bambery) and Young Claire (Michelle Veintimilla) that makes the story of their young love visceral and compelling. The ghostly duo remains onstage throughout, reenacting their joyful, albeit ill-fated romance, and watching their older selves reminisce and negotiate the terms of their reacquaintance.
Bambery and Veintimilla have great chemistry together, practically melting into each other in their portrayal of their sexual coupling. It's difficult to take your eyes off of them even when they are not the principals of a scene. Eventually, Anton and Claire become aware of their presence, reminding them that theirs is a love that will not die. Many moving moments occur when these characters watch, or turn away from watching, their alter egos, but the emotional climax is the pas de deux danced by Claire and Young Claire ("Love and Love Alone"). The Visit features choreographed movement more than dance, and the audience seems to wait expectantly for Rivera to toss away that cane and strut her stuff. When she finally does, it is at once breathtaking and heartbreaking, and Veintimilla matches her stride for impassioned stride.
The ensemble is rich with strong singers and veteran actors who give passionate performances, including Jason Danieley as the Schoolmaster torn between following his moral code and acquiescing to the mentality of the mob, David Garrison as the Mayor who is a master of spin and finds a way to justify one man's sacrifice for the greater good, and Tom Nelis as Rudi, the Judge who is devoted to making amends to Claire for her mistreatment by the town and the justice system decades ago. In addition to Nelis, Matthew Deming (Louis Perch) and Chris Newcomer (Jacob Chicken) as a pair of eunuchs comprise Claire's entourage. The trio makes quite an impression dressed in black hats and tails, yellow gloves and shoes, and sporting little, round dark glasses to indicate their blindness. Timothy Shew (The Doctor), Aaron Ramey (The Policeman), Rick Holmes (Father Josef), and Diana DiMarzio (The Mayor's Wife) are the remaining townspeople who struggle on the horns of this dilemma, showing their gradual transformation as their distaste is eclipsed by their greed.
Not enough can be said about Kander's eclectic score with orchestrations by Larry Hochman and musical direction by David Loud. Sound Designer Dan Moses Schreier guarantees that the nine musicians in the pit are heard clearly, complementing rather than overwhelming the singers. Some of the songs are instantly recognizable as Kander's style (the bouncy "Yellow Shoes"), while one is a beautifully haunting waltz ("You, You, You"), another sounds like an oom-pah tune, and another is a melodramatic confession. The Visit is not sung through, but with twenty musical numbers, the lyrics and the various moods conveyed by the songs are integral to advancing the story hand in hand with McNally's book. There are numerous challenging themes - vengeance, dishonesty, prostitution, injustice to name a few - but Doyle and company have made a concerted effort to put the love story front and center, and that is best expressed in song.
Will the third time be the charm for The Visit? The show is dark, but the love story provides a steady internal glow, like a pilot light. The book is not without humor, but the character and situational humor land better than some one-liners that sound anachronistic, and there are lessons within the narrative, although they are universal and more cautionary than didactic. However, the show will rise or fall on the strength of the creative team and the artists bringing their vision to life. With Rivera and Rees as the co-captains on this dream team of all-stars, The Visit could be booking an extended stay.
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson (The Company of The Visit)