Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Visit (The SOB Review)

The Visit (The SOB Review) - Max Theatre, Signature, Arlington, VA

***1/2 (out of ****)

Unlike guests who overstay their welcome, Chita Rivera and George Hearn are two exceptional legendary actors who aren't around nearly enough.

Together in John Kander and the late Fred Ebb's spellbinding "new" musical The Visit, they're making a most unusual return back to the stage, particularly since Rivera, long known as much for her dancing prowess as acting talent, only briefly hints at her gift for movement here. But with her moving turn, this is one visit worth indefinitely prolonging.

Based on Friedrich Duerrenmatt's Tony-nominated 1958 play (revived in 1973 and 1992 ) that went on to become a 1964 film, the calling card of this tuner is about as exalted as any theatre lover could hope for.

In addition to Kander and Ebb, the lofty creative team reads like a who's who of the stage, including Terrence McNally and his shrewdly clever book, Ann Reinking and her captivating choreography, Derek McLane and his deceptively modest set design, Susan Hilferty and her richly textured and ever-evolving costume designs, and Howell Binkley and his transfixing lighting that's almost quite literally groundbreaking.

Due props also must be paid to Frank Galati for helming such an exquisite production; this is by far the best production I've seen him direct.

But, it bears repeating that after this musical first premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in the heady days immediately following 9/11, the national disposition toward moody, dark works did not help propel ironic pieces like The Visit further. Sadly for the show, Fred Ebb died three years later (on 9/11/04, no less) and a planned Public Theater Visit never materialized.

Fortunately for audiences, The Visit has been resuscitated and brought back to life anew, and likely much improved as part of the Washington DC area's Signature Theatre, which is wrapping up a celebration of the many works of Kander and Ebb. And suddenly, The Visit has legs, even if Claire Zachanassian (Rivera), the world's wealthiest woman with a score to settle, is missing one (thus the truncated opportunity to see Rivera glide via the lovely "One-Legged Tango").

The eponymous stay refers to Claire' s long overdue return to the poor little Swiss community of Brachen, which she left as a teen to find her way in the world. Her sojourn through life included multiple marriages in which she survived one wealthy husband after another, accumulating wealth and making a name for herself in her own right. The people of Brachen welcome her visit, which holds out the promise that their miserable lot can improve significantly if they treat her right.

All she asks in return is the head of Anton (Hearn), the man she loved as a teen, but whose hand was instead given to Matilda (Karen Murphy) to secure a better future. Never mind that the offing he expected failed to materialize. Now, Anton is faced with his own offing at the hands of his fellow Brachenians.

Just as Kander and Ebb's Cabaret lulls you into a frothy, festive feeling, only to lower the boom with a bombshell bang, The Visit works on many of the same lethal levels. In Cabaret, I was haunted by how slyly Kander and Ebb turned "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" from a seemingly innocent tune into a frightening Nazi tour de force; similarly, in The Visit, the songwriting duo's elegant "Yellow Shoes" marks this musical's stunning transformation from light to dark with precision.

The score, of course, is as much of a star for The Visit as any of the uniformly superb performances. There's no mistaking it's a Kander and Ebb musical, as they have worked their magic once again, ranging from the lovely "You, You, You" by Anton and Claire as they reminisce about what once was to the pivotal "A Car Ride," in which Anton is resigned to his reckoning as he takes one last ride with his family.

If the acting is your reason for your visit, you won't be disappointed. Rivera and Hearn are perfectly matched, and are buttressed further by one great turn after another. Jeremy Webb is in fine voice as the conflicted schoolmaster, who looks on in horror as his fellow townspeople's greed gets the best of them; Webb is one exceptional actor, whose continued growth merits watching. Mark Jacoby is outstanding as the mayor who's all too willing to lead his town down a dangerous path. And James Harms is duly haughty as Claire's butler who conceals her secret until she's ready to reveal it.

Despite its quirky and ultimately somber tone, this is one Visit worth making. I can only hope The Visit plans a New York stay as planned.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Happy Mermorial Day (May 26, 2008)
Looking Forward: The SOB Top Five (January 2, 2008)
Worth Paying DC A Visit In 2008 (December 21, 2008)
Amazing Candor From Amazing Kander (March 28, 2007)
Chita Rivera to Make Return "Visit" in DC (August 25, 2006)

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At 04 June, 2008, Blogger Sarah B. Roberts said...

Spot on review. This is one I'd like to VISIT over and over again, hopefully with you, you, you!

At 04 June, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

You're on!!

Of course, you, you, you (and your partners in crime) helped make the night especially memorable. I'm still buzzing from the excitement.

At 04 June, 2008, Blogger Vance said...

Yeah, I don't know who that Jeremy Webb guy was but boy do I hope I see him again in more shows. He was terrific and held his own against Hearn, Rivera and Jacoby which is quite a high standard to be at.

"Yellow Shoes" was hauntingly amazing!

At 04 June, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Vance, I've now seen Webb three times.

First time was in the 2004 Off-Broadway revival of The Baltimore Waltz with Kristen Johnston and David Marshall Grant. He more than held his own against these formidible actors.

Then, there he was as the sly harlequin in last year's The Glorious Ones, and he turned in another memorable performance.

He just keeps getting better and better, and I'm hoping, in turn, that his star is on the rise.

At 04 June, 2008, Blogger Sarah B. Roberts said...

Vance, "You, You, You", "I Must Have Been Something," "Love and Love Alone" and even "Yellow Shoes" are all incredible songs. I want to hear them again and again!

At 04 June, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am hoping and praying for this show to make it to Broadway...

At 04 June, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I'm hoping for Broadway, too, BB.


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