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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
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.
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, now starring 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. When, undaunted by all these challenges, Rivera was aboard again for a production at Signature Theatre of Arlington, Virginia six years ago it somehow didn't have the legs for that final leap to New York. It seemed too top heavy, 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 Judy Kuhn as Anton's wife Matilde . . . 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 too to 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. Will the music being made in the beautiful hills of the Berkshires carry this new-old musical all the way to Broadway? Feeling just a bit like a cockeyed optimist, I'll venture a "probably." But in the meantime, hedge that bet, and try to catch it up here while you can.