Musical Theater / Theater

Kander and Ebb’s The Visit at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

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From left: Tom Nelis, Chita Rivera, Chris Newcomer. Photo © T Charles Erickson
From left: Tom Nelis, Chita Rivera, Chris Newcomer. Photo © T Charles Erickson

The Visit
At the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Main Stage,
July 31 – August 17

Book by Terrence McNally
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Based on the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Translated by Maurice Valency
Choreographed by Graciela Daniele
Directed by John Doyle

With Jason Danieley, Matthew Deming, Diana DiMarzio, Melanie Field, David GarrisonRick Holmes, Judy Kuhn, Tom Nelis, Christopher Newcomer, Aaron Ramey, Roger ReesChita Rivera

The time: a few years after WWII.

The place: Brachen, a small, poverty stricken town in Western Europe.

The stage, bathed in cold, blue-gray light, jars us as we enter the warm wood theatre. This is not going to be a happy-go-lucky show. The set is a balcony with supports covered in dead vines. Overhead is a broken glass roof. As the music begins a young boy and girl dressed in ivory clothes dance together, choreographically making love. The townspeople enter dressed in tatters of muted, dark colors and in their first song, “At Last,” express the hope that one of their own is about to come and save them.

Soon Claire Zachanassian, a wealthy, older former prostitute of Jewish and Gypsy descent, arrives dressed in a bright white gown and jewels. She is followed by her entourage − two male servants in white mime make-up, whom she has blinded and castrated, and her butler, a former judge who had wronged her. The townspeople gather around Claire. She offers to fulfill their hopes with billions in money – but only on one condition: that they kill Anton Schell, her former teenage lover, who not only impregnated her but also asked her to have an abortion. When she refused, he arranged for two men (the ones whom Claire later castrated) to testify that they had also slept with her, and then he abandoned her to marry the daughter of the town’s merchant.

Will the town kill him for the money? The townspeople initially proclaim that it’s not right but are too quickly seduced by the promise of riches and do the woman’s bidding. They rationalize it in the name of justice.

Hardly the plot of a musical. We have seen tragic operas by the dozens and some successful tragic musicals, too. One thinks of Carousel, West Side Story, Les Miserables. It was the darkness of the story that inspired Kander and Ebb, the team that wrote Cabaret and Chicago, to collaborate with Terrence McNally to adapt Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s absurd tragicomedy The Visit into the musical that is being revived through August 17 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. WTF has given the show a first-rate production and a first-rate cast. There are some spectacular performances and several riveting moments. However, the question is not whether the show deserves a good revival, but whether it should have been made into a musical at all.

The plot revolves around inner turmoil – characters wrestling with their consciences. Anton – played with great intensity and anguish by Roger Rees − is pained in words and song. Even with the unforgivable actions of his youth, he is a sympathetic character. Rees’s thin physique and face (he looks not unlike Elie Wiesel in his sadness) makes him into a tragic hero. The townspeople grapple inwardly as a group but it is only the teacher – in an emotional and wrenching song, “The Only One,” sung to perfection by Jason Danieley – who searches his conscience in front of us.

Claire reaches the show a fully formed character bent on revenge and getting her former lover back even if she has to kill him to do so. She neither grows nor changes nor discovers more about herself as a person. She has an ivory hand and a wooden leg, hard to the touch when Anton reaches out to her – but they are not as hard as her heart. We don’t see her anger or her hurt, just their resulting resolve. We get a glimpse of her emotions only when she visits her past in song and one magical dance number with her teenage self. Chita Rivera plays Claire imperiously, brittlely and icily. In spite of all the horrendous things Anton did to her, she evokes understanding but not sympathy. Rivera is more of a song and dance performer than an actress; still she is believable. The conflict in the show − partly cerebral, partly emotional −  is more within Schell, within the townspeople than between characters.

Kander and Ebb wrote The Visit thirty-five years after Cabaret. Yet a few of the songs sound like those in that show.  One song even used the same boom-tik-tik, boom tik tik introduction as the song “Willkommen.” The songs about love, in particular “You You You,” were splendid. Others were not only forgettable but also did nothing to elucidate character and feeling. We expect that in a song the music will reflect the meaning. This was not the case often enough in The Visit.

In the talk-back after the performance I attended, the actors told us that the director John Doyle wanted the show to be a parable in the same ninety-minute length as most requiems. He might have overly pared it back, suggested too much rather than laid it out for us to see – and more importantly feel. The Visit is a story of humanity at its worst. We wanted to feel the anguish as well as think about the townspeople’s conflict.

Doyle also innovated by having the young Claire and Anton (Michelle Veintimilla and John Bambery, she a beautiful dancer, he a splendid singer) on the stage the whole time. This worked well. They did remind us of the past love and passion that Claire and Anton had shared and contrasted with a coffin, also always on the stage, portending what was to come.

The bell-voiced Judy Kuhn was fine but wasted as Schell’s wife, singing hardly any solo notes. Melanie Field as Anton’s daughter and Jude McCormick as his son also played their roles extremely well. Matthew Deming and Christopher Newcomer as the eunuchs conveyed  absurdity with falsetto voices and humor.

One must also pay tribute to the lighting designer, Japhy Weideman, whose cold lighting made us feel the town’s forlornness. Warm lighting was used only in the love songs and dances. Ann Hould Ward’s costumes used the color yellow (expanding on the eunichs’ yellow shoes in the original play) most effectively to indicate the town’s greed and acquisitiveness as the townspeople slowly sell their souls.

The extraordinary Graciela Daniele conveyed passion, wistfulness and on one occasion joy with her beautiful and sometimes inventive choreography. She is a theatre legend, and in this production one can see why.

In spite of the fine moments and many wonderful performances, one is ultimately left unsatisfied, approaching empty. The irony, satire, outrageousness and absurdity of the original Dürrenmatt play are only outlined. And one wonders that if the original cannot be captured sufficiently in music, song and dance, why bother to revive the musical or even write it in the first place?

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