Thursday, May 21, 2015

THE VISIT on Broadway

You are about to hear a tale of revenge, debauchery, and greed. That certainly describes one Kander and Ebb show, but not just the one you are thinking of. Yes, the long-running revival of Chicago is still razzle-dazzling audiences uptown at the Ambassador, but what I want to discuss is their final collaboration, this season’s The Visit. The Visit, starring the incomparable Chita Rivera, tells the story of Claire Zachanassian, a poor Gypsy turned whore who became one of the wealthiest women in the world. Though she has survived many husbands, she declares herself “unkillable”. When she returns to her hometown in an unspecified European country, she finds the village in shambles and the people hungry for her to help them. Throughout the piece, we learn that Claire was once in love with Anton Schell, with whom she conceived a child, but he married Mathilde as her father’s store offered him more of a future. After revealing that Anton’s lies caused her to flee from the town, Claire offers to give the town 10 billion dollars, but only if they will agree to kill Anton. At first, the townspeople grimace at the thought, but as they imagine the luxuries that they could have, dream of “yellow shoes,” and begin purchasing things on credit, their greed overtakes their compassion and they all agree to sacrifice Anton, merely for the sake of “justice.” This tale begs a question that we have all wrestled with before. When wrong is done to us, will forgiveness or revenge win out in the end? We may not know how we’d react in this situation, but we certainly know Claire’s opinion.

This piece has three standouts: Japhy Weideman’s lighting design, Kander & Ebb’s score, and Chita Rivera’s performance. Weideman’s design creates an ominous mood from the very beginning in cold shades of gray. As the performers sing of their memories, the lighting moves into sepia tones that suggest days gone by. I don’t know that I have ever seen a lighting concept that is quite so integral to the storytelling and carried out so effectively. John Kander & Fred Ebb’s final score is perhaps their most complex. The piece is nearly sung through, though Terrence McNally’s trim book holds it all together. This theme of waltzes, particularly the “You, You, You” motif, makes the piece reminiscent of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. “Winter” and “Love and Love Alone” are standout performances for Chita Rivera’s Claire, while “Yellow Shoes” is a classic Kander & Ebb number if there ever was one, with a toe-tapping rhythm and a lyric that bites.

The show itself is exquisite, but what made this evening a once in a lifetime experience was the postshow discussion by John Kander and Lin Manuel Miranda. These two men represent bookends of a musical theatre composer’s career: the former is experiencing likely his final show on Broadway while the later is preparing to open just his second. As an aspiring musical theatre writer myself, listening to them discuss the writing process brought tears to my eyes at several moments. Kander began by discussing the inspiration for The Visit, which was to take the operatic story of The Merry Widow and “turn it on its ear.” From this idea came the operetta structure and the waltz themes. Miranda commented that, much like Cabaret, this piece gives you beautiful melodies while Ebb’s lyrics “step on your throat”. He then compared the “Yellow Shoes,” the most haunting number in the show to “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” on steroids. A particular highlight was when Miranda shared his favorite saying of Kander’s. “My conscience is clear” is what he says when he has finished writing for the day. Both men also sang the praises of star Chita Rivera, who also stepped onto the stage with director John Doyle for a brief moment. Miranda told a story from last week’s Drama League Awards, where Chita hugged him on her way to accept her award for best performance and whispered “Viva Puerto Rico!" Kander’s final remarks were directed toward Rivera, stating that this was a very different role for her, who we all know best as the dancing dynamo from West Side Story and Chicago. “She’s famous for movement, but watching her stand still is breathtaking.” At 82, Chita is more dazzling than ever, Claire’s mere presence still has the ability to put this downtrodden town in a tizzy, and that is the very heart of this show. In the best Broadway season I have seen in my lifetime, Chita Rivera is still the brightest of stars.