Though it isn’t the last musical for which Fred Ebb ever wrote lyrics, The Visit, which has been in development for 15 years, marks the last new lyrics of his to be heard on Broadway, and for that the show has a ghostly finality about it. Ebb’s sensibility courses through the 100-minute, intermission-less evening, from the bitter wit with which the wealthy heroine explains her fortunes (“I married very often/And I widowed very well”) to sub-verbal expressions of pure love (“You, you, you/Suddenly you, you, you”). But the late lyricist’s signature is most audible in the titular metaphor of one number in particular: “Yellow Shoes.”
The footwear in question contrasts with the dark, shabby outfits designed by Ann Hould-Ward and worn by the denizens of the fictional European town of Brachen. The most colorful items on stage, the shoes and other yellow clothes snatched up, on credit, by the destitute townspeople showcase Ebb’s talent for conveying unimaginable evil through tokens of innocence. The yellow shoes belong in the same family as Cabaret’s gorilla and Roxie’s chorus boys in Chicago, thrillingly theatrical representations of the spectacle of corruption. If only The Visit had been brave enough to follow such cunning cynicism through to its conclusion, this Broadway premiere might have been a triumph. As it is, The Visit, with an unobtrusive and ghostly score by John Kander, is a charmingly creepy curiosity, bolstered by a fine performance by its leading lady.
The lady, of course, is Chita Rivera, the 82-years-young actor behind the aforementioned heroine, Claire Zachanassian. The “visit” of the title is Claire’s return to Brachen, her birthplace, after decades amassing wealth abroad. Her arrival is applauded as loudly by the townspeople, who are desperate for her money, as Rivera’s is by her audience, which is desperate for another look at the West Side Story star. Rivera, like the shoes, is the other bright light amid these dim proceedings. She enters through a cavernous, dilapidated train station (hauntingly designed and lit by Scott Pask and Japhy Weideman, respectively) and stands proudly, twinkling, downstage, allowing us to be electrified by her survival.
The plot is simple: Ms. Zachanassian will rescue the financially starved town if, in return, the townspeople will murder the man who loved, impregnated, and abandoned her when they both were young. Attempts to bargain are fruitless: Claire is as immovable as she is, in her own words, “unkillable,” and before long the citizens find themselves tempted by the prospect of financial salvation (and those fabulous shoes).
As staged by John Doyle and adapted by Terrence McNally (from the 1956 original by German dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt), The Visit forces its star to keep the evening hoisted on her back while the rest of the cast (including the underutilized Jason Daniely) must dither and gesticulate as caricatures of greedy, starving, and generic townspeople. Rivera more than fulfills her task, commanding the stage like a Disney villain who’s suddenly been crowned queen. Always a passionate presence, Rivera seems to have grown in stature as she’s aged. Though she hardly dances here, aside from a few gentle kicks choreographed by Graciele Daniele, she’s ideally suited to occupy Claire’s imposing, darkly comic, statuesque villainy.
Fortunately for Rivera, but not for her castmates, McNally is much less interested in the play’s central moral dilemma than in the love story between Claire and her former beau, Anton Schell (Roger Reese). To that end, he forces two young actors to remain onstage for much of the performance as Claire and Anton’s ghosts, who run out of new ways to stare longingly at one another. Schell and Zachanassian’s denoument is rendered as a liebestod, an operatic love-death meant to culminate their relationship. Meanwhile, the ethical consequences of Claire’s proposal, that she can “buy justice,” are left unexamined. Reese plays Anton as lowly, bumbling, and sweet, so that it’s hard to believe he ever played Don Juan and even harder to accept his death as remotely noble.
In the Dürrenmatt original, Zachanassian represents less a love turned cold than an inhuman, clockwork version of justice that resembled the intractability of Cold War ideologies. Here, in the few moments when a scathing, Ebb-style theatricality emerges (the yellow-shoes scene, for example, and a pair of soft-shoe performances by Claire’s eerily composed eunuch sidekicks), there’s a hint of how well this material could have transferred to a musical idiom. But Doyle’s spare directing style, so effective with epic-sized musicals like Sweeney Todd and Allegro, siphons air and life out of a show that desperately needs it. And McNally obscures what’s left of its political critique with a perverse but unsatisfying love story. In short, despite its best efforts, The Visit feels like a grim fairy tale conspicuously missing a moral.
The Visit is now running at the Lyceum Theatre.