12 April 2015
You don’t really notice the coffin at first. The immaculate luggage is stacked up high upon it, so initially it seems just like a very expensive piece of trunk luggage. But then your attention is deliberately drawn elsewhere. To the tall man with sunglasses, and the two other men, their faces painted with an opaque white circle; they wear yellow gloves and shoes and are impeccably dressed in traditional morning suits. And, of course, the visitor. Immaculately dressed in white, a long fur lined coat, with matching fur hat, emphasising her stylish demeanour. They could be attending a wedding.
They enter from the right hand rear of the stage, in a stately procession. The stage is beautifully set. Once there was a grand house here, but it has now gone to ruin. The forest is invading the failing supports, tree roots, leaves and limbs are everywhere, emphasising decay and the unrelenting forces that are both time and nature. The townsfolk of Brachen, a place somewhere in Europe, are all fading, the colour and life dissipated from their cheeks, clothes and sensibilities. The visitor is alive. Vividly alive.
Then you see it is a coffin. Definitely. A coffin.
And for 90 minutes of ecstatic storytelling, you are transported to a place where love, death and consequence are dancing together and where a victory for true love might just not be what you first think it will.
This is John Doyle’s exceptional staging of the final musical from the illustrious team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, The Visit, now in previews at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, and starring the indefatigable and quite inspirational Chita Rivera. With a book by Terrence McNally, this is one of the best of Kander & Ebb’s musicals. Certainly, it is the best, most important, musical currently playing on Broadway – and that is saying something, given the current competition.
This is not, by any means, a typical musical. It stretches and plays with the form in unusual, provocative and inventive ways. I can’t recall the last time the eleven o’clock number in a musical involves the star not singing – but that is precisely what happens here: the piece reaches its unforgettable, heart-shattering zenith when Chita Rivera, the titular visitor, dances with her younger self (the elfin Michelle Veintimilla) in a moment of raw, intense, self-realisation. It is as potent as it is delicate. Inexpressibly beautiful.
Doyle uses the staging to emphasise themes which are prominent in music and text. The past is a constant character in the action. The titular visit occurs because of the past and determines the future. The younger ghost-like images of the central characters, Claire (Rivera) and Anton (Roger Rees and John Riddle as now and then versions) are ever present, either giving life to remembrances or providing a constant echo of the past and its consequences.
Equally, when they are not engaged in the immediate action, the townsfolk stay in the shadows, watching, contemplating, judging. They represent society and shared cultures, the prism of ‘respectability’ and ‘tradition’. The actions centre-stage, whether present or past, affect them, shape them; and, by their very presence, they shape and affect past, present and future.
Whenever she enters the action, Claire is part of a formal procession. The pattern is relentless and rigidly stiff-necked. In a surface way, Claire represents the past catching up with the present; but the truth is more intriguing. She and her almost military retinue embody Justice. Like all forms of justice, Claire’s comes with reverberating consequences. She might be dressed in all white, but her purpose in making this visit is to reveal the true colours of others.
The story is both simple and complex. Claire and Anton were desperately in love when they were younger, but Anton chose to marry Matilde and gain the security of her family’s shop. Claire, for reasons revealed as the piece progresses, leaves the town, forges a new life. She marries often and “widows well”, becoming the world’s richest woman.
While Claire’s fortunes improve, the town where she was born steadily declines. Industry ceases, poverty becomes entrenched. Then, one day, the Mayor receives word that Claire is returning to Brachen and he and the other townsfolk hope to persuade her to part with some of her fortune to permit the town to re-establish itself. To the excitement of the villagers, Claire offers Brachen 10 Billion dollars.
But she has a specific price in mind. And whether or not the town is willing to pay it is central to the unfolding narrative. To be more specific about the plot would be to deny the real – and often surprising or startling – twists and turns of McNally’s book. Truly, the less one knows about The Visit, the greater the first experience of seeing it will be.
Chita Rivera is unforgettable as Claire; an incandescent star of the Broadway stage in undiminished glory, Rivera is faultless. She looks astonishing, every inch the unfathomably rich widow. Her poise and stature is hypnotic; when she is on stage or arriving on stage, you are compelled to watch her. As she slowly but surely reveals the truths and pains that have forged her nature and compelled her visit, Rivera is a study in exacting revenge and balancing scores that puts her Claire shoulder to shoulder with Medea or Elektra.
Equally, Rivera’s Claire is all woman, with a clear recollection of her long ago adoration for Anton and the resonances of the town where she was born. She is witty too, and can deliver a razor sharp observation, threat or analysis with unerring accuracy. Her steely will, her knowing smile, her graceful gait, her infectious smile, her rapacious intelligence – these are but some of the shining facets to the diamond that Rivera creates Claire as.
At 82, it is no surprise that Rivera cannot sing and dance as once she did, but she can still do both better than many. Her work in “You, You, You”, “Winter”, “Love and Love Alone” and “In The Forest Again” is extraordinary, compelling and sensuous. Her rapport with Rees is unambiguously profound – if Romeo and Juliet had lived, they would have been like Rees and Rivera here. Thoroughly committed to every aspect of the character and the musical, Rivera is constantly a joy.
Roger Rees matches her commitment continually. His Anton is a mercurial character, torn between the world he has left behind and the one he has created, but constantly on the lookout for a way to have his cake and eat it too. Both haunted and opportunistic, Rees makes Anton an almost Shakespearean candidate for redemption. His voice is rich and true, and appropriately worn when the magnitude of the task set for him sets in. As is right, the audience sees and hears two extremes of Rees’ range in the delivery of “I Know Claire” and “Fear”. It’s a powerful performance in every way.
As Frederich Kuhn, the teacher, Jason Danieley is completely unrecognisable, except when he sings and then his splendid voice gives him away. He is entirely submerged in the character, riven by the moral conundrum he must face. This is most obvious in his solo, “The Only One” but also continually throughout.
Mary Beth Peil, as Anton’s wife of many years, Matilde, gives a masterclass in the portrayal of pain and resentment. With very few words, she paints a very clear picture of the kind of woman she is and in her silences she is especially eloquent. When she sits or stands in the shadows, still and watchful, her eyes darting from place to place, assessing, calculating, scheming, she is mesmerising. You realise you want to see the production again just to focus entirely on Peil’s remarkable work.
Also superb, in every way, are John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla, who play the young versions of Claire and Anton at the time of their great lustful romance. Both take great care to imitate aspects of their older selves (and vice versa) and at clearly demonstrating the stakes, at least for Claire. The sense of languid, lasting but overwhelming passion is almost tangible. They sing and dance with the ease and commitment of two made one, gracefully, with utter conviction.
There are no weak links in the cast of sixteen. David Garrison, Matthew Deming, Chris Newcomer and Elena Shaddow are especially exemplary, giving detailed, nuanced performances which are consistently engaging and provoking.
Musically, the score is endlessly fascinating. More in the sphere of Kiss Of The Spiderwoman than Chicago, Kander creates a specific sound for the town and eras of Brachen and uses different sorts of songs to make various character or plot development points. “Yellow Shoes”, perhaps the most obviously Kander tune of the score, is joyous and catchy, but it bubbles along above a serious plot development. Many of the numbers enhance mood, explain plot points, develop characters – but some are simply gorgeous. “A Car Ride” and “In The Forest Again” are extraordinary musical moments in a score studded with gems.
One suspects that had the score been composed by Sondheim, accolades would be quickly lavished upon the composer. That it is possible to think that a Kander score might have been composed by Sondheim says more about Kander’s range and willingness to try new form than anything else. His use of two choruses here is fresh territory for him but extraordinarily effective. Indeed, the show is never better than when the ensemble are singing at full power, enlivening harmony and melody while communicating, very clearly, the torrent of subterranean emotions and reactions.
This is a glorious Kander score, one of his very best. Who else has attempted a Musical Revenge Tragedy and succeeded so well?
Ebb’s lyrics are sharp and crafty, sometimes smug, sometimes glib, sometimes romantic, sometimes alarming – always spot on. Not a minute is wasted. The devastating tale is told at a cracking pace, the pressure never relenting, the revelations and twists come thick and fast as Claire’s deadline for the acceptance of her bargain remorselessly approaches. The clock ticks and is reflected in dialogue, lyric and score. So is change and acceptance.
Scott Pask, surely the busiest set designer on Broadway, provides a perfect setting for the tale – one glance at the desiccated grandeur tells you more than pages of dialogue could about the state of Brachen now and what Claire’s memories of it would be. Japhy Weideman brings light to every corner of the space when it is needed and creates important mood changes with hues that seem part of the score. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are quite perfect.
Doyle and choreographer Graciela Daniele ensure that the stage pictures are always enchanting. Daniele has no big numbers to stage, but she manages to imbue the ones that do require dancing with stylish and entirely appropriate moves. The balletic seductive swirls of the young Anton and Claire and the “Yellow Shoes” routine are worlds apart, but exuberantly spot on.
David Loud’s musical direction was exemplary. The music is played with verve and fervour, and he ensures the singing is impeccable and the diction crystal clear. The ten piece orchestra covers many instruments and the tonal variety was welcome; if one cannot have a bigger orchestra, then one such as this is an excellent compromise.
Make no mistake: this is not a musical comedy. It is something else altogether. If you embrace it and let it engulf you, you will be richly rewarded. This is first-rate in every way and, more importantly for the life of the musical form, an invigorating – but shattering – new direction.