I had just finished watching the 1964 film version of The Visit starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn a few hours prior to seeing John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Broadway musical adaptation with book by Terrance McNally. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that as both the film and musical are adaptations of the original 1956 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, and they surely have changes exclusive to each version. Maybe it influenced how I felt about the musical unfairly, I can’t say for sure.
I can honestly say that I greatly enjoyed the film, and it actually made me look forward to the musical even more. I have a few friends that swear by the show and score as it had been performed previously at the Signature Theatre. Not being familiar with that incarnation, I wonder if whatever captured their devotion is to be found in the version of the show currently playing at the Lyceum Theatre.
The basic story is the same in both the film and the musical: Claire Zachanassian (Chita Rivera) is returning to her financially-strapped hometown as a rich woman offering up a fortune to the people and the city on one condition – that her ex-lover, Anton Schell (Roger Rees), be killed. She more than has her reasons, and what is interesting in both the film and musical are how Anton’s friends and neighbors start off indignant but get closer and closer to acquiescence.
The musical takes place on a unit set representing what looks like a decrepit large train station with a ledge, broken glass panels, and pillars covered in ivy. It looks great and sure sets the mood. The staging is such that I would often be watching some character to the far right sing and out of the corner of my eye see Chita Rivera walking quietly along the ledge on the set to the far left. The show has style to be sure, but I wonder if the vaudevillian approach (familiar to a lot of Kander & Ebb’s work) was the proper way to tackle this story. Claire’s henchmen in the story have white kabuki makeup and bright yellow shoes and white Mickey Mouse-looking gloves, looking rather ridiculous next to her in her fur coat and the townspeople in their heavily stained and worn clothing. Any seriousness in the dialog or lyrics seem to be undone by some of the stylistic choices made here.
Even so, there are most definitely some songs of note. “I Walk Away” is a story song for Claire explaining how she got to be so rich that is terrifically delivered by Chita; “You, You, You” is a sensitive ballad for Claire and Anton as they reminisce about their youthful romance (as a young Claire and Anton embrace and dance). As the show went on, and the audience reaction (or non-reaction) at the performance I attended would bear this out, less seemed to happen in the story. It was as if the gears were going slower and slower, and the haphazard attempts at comedy landed with a thud. Chita and Roger Rees don’t just lack chemistry; there seems to be a kind of negative chemistry at play here, as their interactions come off as so forced and rote.
The musical is performed without an intermission, and I had expected it to run for around ninety minutes. It was closer to a hundred minutes according to my clock, but it felt like well over two hours. While watching the film I could see scenes and situations that would lend themselves well to musicalization, and there is a LOT of music in this show as is, but it felt like sometimes the wrong scenes were set to music. Chita Rivera got her rapturous applause, which she would’ve received had she decided to sing the dictionary, but the comments I overheard exiting the theatre let me know that I wasn’t alone in my disappointment. I feel like there IS a great, dark musical lurking in the material, but I didn’t see it come to fruition that day at the Lyceum.
** out of ****