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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Doyle's gift for concision without fatal omissions and a superb ensemble headed by Rivera worked like a charm. His intermissionless production was thrilling and rich. And its lost none of that richness on its way to Broadway.
Unlike some shows that have to adjust from large but not too large venues to huge Broadway theaters (case in point: Barrington Stage's transfer of On the Town) the show feels as at home in the Lyceum Theater as it did in Williamstown's Main theater.
Chita Rivera, the sexiest and most dynamic octogenarian in town, is unlikely to need an understudy very often. However, just in case she needs a day off, her understudy the very fine Donna McKechnie, should also be satisfying.
The one major replacement, Judy Kuhn, was unable to reprise her role for a good reason: Another show she appeared in, the Public Theater's new musical Fun Home transferred to the Circle in the Square. Since even talented performers can't be in two places at the same time. Fortunately, Matilda is now ably played by Mary Beth Peil. (No wonder she hasn't been around to annoy her daughter-in-law on The Good Wife!)
My assessment of the show's brief Williamstown holds. And so, rather than repeat myself, I'm reposting a slightly updated repeat below: My Original Review of The Visit during it's WTF premiere
The venue this time around is the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The wizard who's quite drastically reconceptualized this troubled musical without losing any of its assets is director John Doyle. And to support his strikingly effective new concept of The Visit in the format of a one-act opera, there's a superb cast and design team.
The cast Doyle has assembled is headed by, you guessed it, Chita Rivera who at 81, unlike Claire Zachanassian, still has a full set of functioning limbs as well as a commanding stage presence evem if she may not be quite the razzle-dazzle dancer she was when she created the role of Velma Kelly in Chicago, Kander and Ebb's super success. (It's latest incarnation running on Broadway since 1996.)
The inventive Mr. Doyle has dealt with both Rivera's age and her character's missing leg (and arm) by making a younger Claire (Michelle Veintimilla) omnipresent on stage to execute Graciela Daniela's choreography — and yet giving Rivera a chance to strut her legendary moves in a lovely and moving pas-de-deux with Veintimilla.
Despite being more dancer than singer, Rivera succeeds with her Brechtian style which includes her singing narrative of her marital history ("I Married Very Often/and I Widowed Very Well") and a potent solo, "Winter." However, good as Rivera is, this production belongs as much, if not more so, to Roger Rees as the lover of her youth. It's his unjust dealing with her teen-aged pregnancy that prompts her late-in-life visit to the desolate Brachen to right that wrong. While I've heard him sing before in an under appreciated little musical called A Man of No Importance ( review) WTF audiences who know Rees most as a director and actor, will be bowled over by his delightful rendering of "I Must Have Been Something" as well as the more melancholy "Fear."
Mr. Doyle has paired the young Claire character with an also always on stage Young Anton (John Bambery). Both these young performers sing as well as move beautifully
Bad luck was responsible for the years' of stumbles to prevent The Visit from reaching New York: It started with the originally intended Claire, Angela Lansbury, dropping out when her husband was ill. Next 9/11 prevented producers from assessing the limited Chicago run with Rivera. To further beset the show with as many problems as those afflicting the town of Brachen, another planned New York production lost two producers and. worse yet, lyricist Fred Ebb died.
But apparently there was more than a change of luck needed to make The Visit work for today's audiences. Undaunted by all these challenges, Rivera was aboard again for a production at Signature Theatre of Arlington, Virginia six years ago. But it somehow didn't have the legs for that final leap to New York because it seemed too top heavy and a bit unwieldy.
While making the young Claire and Anton always on scene is Doyle's major new concept, his expertise at downsizing without eliminating what's essential was also called for. And so, while he added these characters to heighten what's essentially as much a love as a revenge story, Doyle brought out his editorial scissors. He cut out some characters (16 instead of 26) and a couple of songs. The conflated single act now clocks in at just 97 minutes. I can't recall ever seeing a show so drastically trimmed that still feels as full and satisfying as the two act, two and a half hour original.
Besides Rivera and Reese, and the ghosts of their youths, the whole cast is stellar. The members of the long ago town outcast-cum-billionaire's entourage include the men who testified against her in her hopeless case against Anton as well as the judge in the case. These false witnesses are transformed into riveting eunichs (Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer) and the judge is now her butler Rudi (the always excellent Tom Nelis).
Especially effective members of the desperate townspeople include Mary Beth Heil (well cast f . . . David Garrison as the mayor trying to navigate between his town's need and the immorality of Claire's price to effect it. . .Aaron Ramey as policeman Otto Hahnke. . .and Jason Danieley who, as Anton's friend Schoolmaster Frederich Kuch delivers a heart-tugging "I was the only one."
While this isn't a musical with heavy hoofing, it's not without its memorable production numbers like "Yellow Shoes" which, besides pointing to improved prosperity, slyly symbolizes the moral stance eventually taken.
Much credit is due this production's design team. Scott Pask's once grand now gloomy and decrepid railroad station, evocatively illuminated by Japhy Weidman's lighting, is the perfect setting to create the image of a once thriving town rocked by economic woes. Ann Hould Ward's costumes perfectly define the characters and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design and the 10-piece pit orchestra helmed by David Loud bring out John Kander's gorgeous score.
Had Ebb lived perhaps he would have strengthened the lyrics but no matter. It's Terrence McNally's smart adaptation of the original play and Kander's scintillating rhythms with their echoes of his best work as well as Kurt Weil's melancholy sound that make this a Visit no musical theater lover will want to miss. The music first heard in the beautiful hills Berkshires sounds just as good on Broadway. Unlike some shows seen there where one viewing was more than enough, I feel lucky to have had a chance to visit The Visit twice.