Signature's The Visit

When you are as theatre obsessed as I am, there is bound to be a list of plays which you love, but for one reason or another never get produced. Either the cast is too large, or it requires some extreme technical element, or directors find it extremely difficult to create the right tone, or it isn’t considered well known enough to be commercial, etc. So we stick to just reading these plays, and loaning them to our friends (to spread the love), knowing we may never see a live production of them.

When one of these plays actually gets attention, whether it comes in a production or adaptation, one is always thrilled and excited. And one is also inevitably disappointed. Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit is such a play, and the musical adaptation by Kander and Ebb, currently running at Signature Theatre, is such a production.

In terms of plot, the adaptation sticks pretty close to the original. Claire Zachanassian, an aged and rich widow of many men, returns to her hometown for the first time since leaving it at the age of seventeen. Her hometown, at one time growing and successful, has become poor and decrepit. The townspeople hope that Claire’s visit will be the answer – that she will take pity on their plight, and donate a large sum of money. Claire agrees to donate the money, but with one horrible condition – the death of her former lover Anton Shell. It is a macabre tale, surely fitting to the style of Kander and Ebb. But the musical never seems to find the horror that the play creates. We aren’t shocked by what the townspeople will do for money, because in the musical, there is never any doubt that they will agree, no matter how much they seem to protest at the beginning. The characters arcs are shorter and not as deep, and therefore the darkness of the piece is somewhat compromised.

Besides getting introduced to a wonderful piece of literature, the other reason for seeing this musical is the cast. Or more precisely, stars Chita Rivera and George Hearn. Getting to see the two of them live certainly adds to one’s theatre street cred. I mean, these two are legends. In college, my exam tradition was to take a study break, gather friends, and watch the Sweeney Todd video. And here he was, standing 30 feet in front of me!

Rivera is stately and formidable, looking great in Susan Hilfery’s rich costumes, nearly always white. It is rather amusing that one of the greatest dancers of the American stage is playing a woman with a wooden leg. As a result, Rivera only gets to dance in one number, “The One-Legged Tango”, and this is the moment where Rivera truly sparkles. Here we see why she has been accoladed throughout her career. Every shoulder pop brings a smile and a sass to her face. And it is truly remarkable to see the grace with which she extends her legs.

Hearn is charming as Anton Schell. He warms the heart with his rich baritone, and manages to capture the audience’s sympathy. His best number is “I Must Have Been Something,” as he relives the glory of his youth, and we see a glimpse of the self-possessed, confidant man he used to be.

Also notable is Mark Jacoby, who lends his fine singing voice to the role of the town mayor. Unfortunately, too much of what I call on my more snobbish days “musical theatre acting” is found in the rest of the ensemble. Some of the smaller roles are played with no emotional depth whatsoever. Karen Murphy as Anton’s wife Matilda is entirely one-note – all we ever see from her is a long-suffering woman. Cristen Paige as his daughter Ottilie overacts and over sings every second she is onstage. Her mic should be turned down to prevent her from dominating in group numbers.

The actors that make up Claire’s entourage, however, get it just right. They are hilarious, but at the same time truly creepy and unsettling. Howard Kaye and Alan H. Green are the threatening bodyguards Lenny and Benny. Matthew Deming and Ryan Lowe are awesome as the eunuchs Louis Perch and Jacob Chicken. They move gracefully and sing disturbingly high. Finally, James Harms brings a dignity and solid presence to Rudi, the butler.

Like the other recent rediscovery of a German play, Spring Awakening, I found many things in The Visit that were commendable, but also many elements that left me with reservations. So sure, go see the musical. But read the play. Read the play.

3 stars
Through June 22nd


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