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At 82, Chita Rivera still has it. That ineffable, inimitable charisma of a natural star. And she gets a great showcase for her talents in The Visit, a late collaboration by the legendary John Kander and Fred Ebb that’s making its belated Broadway debut at the Lyceum Theatre. (She also makes clear, in the curtain call, that the cane she uses throughout the show is a prop for her character and not an accommodation for the actress herself.)
That character is one of the darkest to topline a Broadway musical, and that’s saying something for the composer-lyricist duo who gave us the murderous molls in Chicago and the Nazi appeasers in Cabaret. Claire Zachanassian is a billionaire (“I married very often,” she explains in her first solo, “and I widowed very well”) who returns to her Swiss hometown that ridiculed her as a girl and is now very much down on its luck. (Scott Pask designed the ghostly set, a hollowed-out train station with columns of dead ivy and an arched vault ceiling whose window panes are mostly broken.)
Claire offers the town billions of marks to refurbish itself and an additional payout to each citizen — if they agree to murder the man who wronged her long ago, shopkeeper Anton Schell (Roger Rees, in an affecting performance). His was no petty romantic slight: Anton not only dumped Claire for the then-wealthy shopkeeper’s daughter (The Good Wife‘s Mary Beth Peil), not only scorned her when he learned she was pregnant, not only told her to get rid of the baby, but he also got his friends to testify in court that she was a promiscuous whore. All things considered, that’s not bad justification for a decades-long grudge of acute ruthlessness.
As the action unfolds, the townsfolk grow more avaricious and Rees’ Anton more resigned to his fate. We also see what might have been: Youthful, lustful versions of Claire and Anton, played by John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla, haunt the proceedings in long flowing garments of ghostly white.
The Visit, adapted by Terrence McNally from a 1956 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, is an uncompromising Brechtian satire of greed and revenge. But I’m not certain that John Doyle is the right director — though I’m pleased to report that he forgoes his usual trick of requiring his cast to double as the orchestra. His staging here at times verges on tonal monotony so that even more up-tempo numbers like “Yellow Shoes” that cry out for old-fashioned razzle-dazzle seem strangely muted. It’s as if the seriousness of the story has tamped down his impulse to entertain. But as Kander and Ebb proved in their last collaboration, The Scottsboro Boys, it’s possible to deploy vaudevillian showmanship and still maintain a rapier-sharp satirical edge. In fact, that kind of contrast only heightens the audience’s intentionally discomfiting experience. As the exploits of Sweeney Todd and Tony Soprano have shown, asking if we really meant to enjoy what we’re seeing can lead to a kind of sublime dissonance.
Kander’s score is melodic but familiar, like a pastiche of his earlier work in a mostly minor key. (Some songs could be kissing cousins to tunes from other shows.) But it’s refreshing to hear new tunes from this master, and there are some real standouts, particularly for the show’s life-force of a leading lady. Rivera delivers her final ballad, “Love and Love Alone,” with an aching simplicity. It’s clear that she needs no crutch. Grade: B