Friday, May 30, 2008

'The Visit' - The Serrated Edge of Morals

I saw Kander & Ebb's new musical, The Visit, at Signature Theatre in Arlington on Wednesday night. This is my review, prepared for The Metro Herald in Alexandria:

Serrated Edge of Morals:
Kander & Ebb Provoke with ‘The Visit’ at Signature

Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Arlington’s Signature Theatre has midwifed a major new musical play.

Based on the mid-20th century work by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Visit has a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by the late Fred Ebb, and music by John Kander. Directed by Frank Galati, this production of The Visit follows Galati’s 2001 Goodman Theatre premiere in Chicago. Signature now gives us only the second – and apparently improved – mounting of this musical, but it surely will not be the last.

Dürrenmatt conceived his play as a “tragicomedy” in the Greek theatrical tradition. (It even had a Greek chorus to comment on the action.) McNally, Kander, and Ebb have softened the edges of Dürrenmatt’s highly cynical and moralistic work, but even through the gauze this musical remains sharply thought-provoking. In plot and theme it balances on the serrated edge of morals, showing how society can fall this way or that when it loses site of its own ethical center.

The Visit is a multi-layered allegory about the corruption of person and society, with reference to the general events of the last century. Individual events might be inferred, but nothing specific can be identified. Is it about Swiss businesses that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II? Perhaps; but it could also be about the rise of Nazism itself. Or it could be an indictment of capitalism; or not.

With thematic parallels to Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” the arc of The Visit is very much like the Greek tragedy that Dürrenmatt had in mind. Once the basic exposition is completed about halfway through Act I and the central conflict is revealed, the action hurtles toward an inevitable, predictable, and unstoppable climax. (The first-act song, “A Happy Ending,” however, prepares us not at all for the actual ending.)

The Visit is the kind of musical in which a happy-go-lucky song about “Yellow Shoes” turns menacing. It’s that sort of darkness.

Not since Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne debuted The Visit on Broadway has a major production had such a distinguished pair of leads: septuagenarians Chita Rivera as Claire Zachanassian and George Hearn as Anton Schell. (Rivera made her own Broadway debut in 1953; Hearn, in 1966.) Rivera and Hearn dominate the action in Kander & Ebb’s The Visit, even though it is an integrated book musical in which the members of the ensemble each play distinguishable roles – this is emphatically not a theatre piece that depends on an undisaggregated mass of “happy villagers.” The relationship of Claire and Anton is at the core of The Visit, and it is that relationship (which appears, on first glance, to be the basis of a long-delayed and joyful reunion) that sets the tragedy in motion.

The Visit is unusual among Signature Theatre productions in that none of the regular repertory players from the theatre’s roster appear on stage. In fact, the only actor with a previous (but weak) connection is Hearn, who appeared in Putting It Together on Broadway under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, Signature’s founder and artistic director.

This is the biggest production in Signature’s history, with 23 performers, yet Schaeffer seems to have given Galati carte blanche in terms of casting and design. Galati has assembled a company composed almost entirely of New York-based actors, and there is little doubt that a transfer to Broadway is intended – and deserved. He has even brought three of the original (Goodman) cast of The Visit with him: Rivera, James Harms as Rudi, and Cristen Paige as Ottilie Schell, as well as choreographer Ann Reinking.

If The Visit is Broadway bound, it may meet some resistance from audiences of tourists and the legendary “tired businessmen” who are looking for light entertainment. The Visit is not The Little Mermaid. It is meant for thoughtful playgoers, who will have plenty of material to ruminate when the final chord sounds and the spotlight irises on the Mayor’s (Mark Jacoby) troubled visage.

Kander & Ebb and their collaborators have faced this before. Nobody, they were told, will sit through a musical about violent anti-Semitism, sexual promiscuity, and the rise of fascism in Germany – yet Cabaret played 1,165 performances in its first Broadway run, and 2,377 performances in its 1998 New York revival. Chicago was a “vaudeville” meditation on the link between celebrity and murder. Kiss of the Spider Woman (also part of Signature’s Kander & Ebb Celebration) is about the brutality of prison life in an authoritarian state.

The Visit is set in Brachen (“broke” in English), a Swiss town that is down on its luck in the early post-war era. (In Dürrenmatt’s play, the town was called Güllen, which means “liquid manures” in English – you get the picture.) As the lights come up on the stage – not literally, for The Visit is presented in a three-quarter round thrust stage in the MAX, Signature’s larger space – we see a platform littered with refuse. (This reminded me of the props that populated the set of King of Hearts, one of those Broadway flops that Ken Mandelbaum delights in describing in Not Since Carrie.)

Starting with Anton, however, the townspeople clear the stage, which remains essentially empty for the remainder of the performance. The junk is cleared for the arrival, by train, of Claire Zachanassian, the world’s richest woman and a native of Brachen. (Zachanassian explains that she “married often and widowed well.”)

Sharp-tongued, regal, attended by servants, Claire is an elegant stranger among the impoverished citizens of Brachen. They all hope, however, that she has come home after an absence of 50 years to bestow some of her riches on the town. (What they do not know, but learn later, is that Claire is, in large part, the cause of the town’s misery.)

Claire’s reunion with Anton sets the stage for some of The Visit’s finest songs: “I Know Claire,” “You, You, You,” and “I Must Have Been Something.” To single these out, however, is not to suggest the others are unworthy. This is one of the strongest scores for – let’s say it – a Broadway musical in years. Not one number is out of place, superfluous, or short of excellent. It all comes together as an integrated whole – even when, during intermission, the audience leaves humming or whistling the mean-spirited but infectiously melodious “Yellow Shoes.” If this is meant as a sly joke on the part of the composer, it succeeds.

The production team has built upon the 2001 Goodman Theatre production and completely reimagined it. (In a public conversation with Eric Schaeffer that touched on this topic on May 12, John Kander said: “The theatre is never finished. There is no definitive production of anything. Theatre is alive all the time,” he continued; “there is no end, no final statement about a piece of theatre.”) Kander and McNally were making changes to the script as recently as May 21, but – except, perhaps, for a few minor tweaks here and there that might still be done – this version is full and ready.

Scenic designer Derek McLane and lighting designer Howell Binkley have created a shadowy, gloomy environment for Brachen and its townspeople. Susan Hilferty has costumed them, as well as Claire and her retinue, with remarkable attention to detail. (The missing button on the Priest’s cassock, revealing his red union suit underneath, is one of those attentive touches she adds.) Sound designer Matt Rowe fits The Visit into the MAX so that every word of dialogue and every lyric line can be heard precisely as intended.

Kander & Ebb’s The Visit provides one of those rare moments in the theatre for a playgoer to be able to say, years later, “I was there when …” If The Visit finds no home on Broadway, it will be a shame. Even so, London’s West End is available – and it, too, beckons.

The Visit continues through June 22 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue,in Arlington, Virginia. The performance schedule is: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. There is no matinee performance on Saturday, May 17, and the performance that evening is a special event, “The Kander & Ebb Celebration Gala.” Tickets to The Visit are $40 - $69 and are now on sale at Ticketmaster by calling (703) 573-SEAT (7328), or by visiting The Visit is sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

After the show, I chatted briefly with George Hearn, whom I had previously met at a Kennedy Center Spring Gala in 2006. I mentioned that, at that time, he had told me he was "retired."

"I am," he laughed, "but who could turn down the chance to do this play, to work with Chita Rivera?"

I noted that this show seemed headed to Broadway, and Hearn nodded his agreement. "That's what we hope," he said. I added that, if Broadway doesn't work, London is an option, too.

"That's what Chita thinks," he replied. "She believes this will be better received by European audiences."

Perhaps. In any case, it deserves a long theatrical life -- much like its two leading players have led.

(Photo credit: Scott Suchman, courtesy of Signature Theatre)

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