Composer John Kander, the Kansas City native whose contributions to musical theater have been enormous, is back on Broadway with what might be called an anti-blockbuster.
Kander offers “The Visit,” a musical on which he and playwright Terrence McNally and lyricist Fred Ebb (who died in 2004) collaborated for years. “The Visit” invites few comparisons to anything else on the Great White Way at the moment.
The show is evocative, haunting and delicate, a one-act musical that expects the audience to sit up straight and pay attention.
Based on Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play, which is usually described as a tragicomedy, the Broadway show manages a neat trick of binding together seemingly irreconcilable elements. It’s bleak, harshly satirical, utterly cynical in its view of human society and, ultimately, deeply romantic and beautiful. It’s a story of redemption borne of organized cruelty.
Rivera could certainly be considered one of Kander’s most important creative partners: She starred in the original production of “Chicago” as well as “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” And her long career, which includes the 1957 production of “West Side Story,” qualifies her as a true Broadway legend.
As with “Spider Woman,” theatergoers are turning out to see Rivera without necessarily knowing anything about the show. At a recent Saturday night performance, the audience erupted in boisterous applause as soon as she stepped into the light.
The show takes the Durrenmatt three-act play and hones the story into a concise fable about Claire Zachanassian, a fabulously wealthy woman who returns to the town where she once lived. Having acquired her fortune through a series of well-timed marriages, she now has a proposal for the town elders. She will leave to them an enormous endowment on one condition: that they forfeit the life of Anton Schell, the lover who spurned her when they were both in their 20s.
For the citizens, Claire’s offer is a chance to reverse years of economic depression, if only they can figure out an acceptable way to deliver up Anton. And there’s a ticklish question regarding false testimony given by townspeople at a trial decades earlier that essentially decided Claire’s fate.
Directed by John Doyle and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, the action is contained on an open stage backed by an elegant piece of scenery designed by Scott Pask suggesting a curved colonnade in a state of decay. Kander’s dreamy score helps create the show’s unique atmosphere, in which one plot point flows into another, and one musical sequence segues into the next with few explicit scene divisions.
In the course of the show, the young versions of Claire and Anton — danced and sung by Michelle Veintimilla and John Riddle — are pretty much constantly onstage as a reminder of the purity and innocence of first love. Needless to say, the beautiful young lovers stand in brutal contrast to the venal negotiations between Claire and the town officials.
Lighting designer Japhy Weideman and costumer Ann Hould-Ward help Doyle create the show’s distinctive atmosphere. It is at once organic and realistic in many of its details, while at the same time sustaining the surrealistic quality of a dream.
Rivera’s co-star, Roger Rees, was out the night I caught the show. Anton was capably played by understudy Tom Nelis.
The show runs about 90 minutes, and even at that economical length there were times in the second half when the dramatic flow felt a bit sluggish.
But Rivera’s magnificent charisma permeates the production and rivets our interest. She’s now in her 80s and her singing voice may not be what it was, but her ability to hold the stage is undiminished.
“The Visit” has been nominated for five Tony Awards. It is running at the Lyceum Theatre on 45th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue in New York. Call 800-447-7400 or go to thevisitmusical.com.