‘The Visit’ Theater Review: Chita Rivera and Roger Rees Perform a Gripping Dance of Death

This brilliant musical is a James Ensor painting drained of most colors, and the mix of John Kander’s riffs and plaintive ballads suit that dark vision to perfection

John Kander and the late Fred Ebb’s final musical, “The Visit,” has been circling Broadway for over a decade, and if it took this long to get it right, then the wait for “The Visit,” which opened Thursday at the Lyceum Theatre in New York, is well worth it.

Some judicious cutting of the musical has taken place since its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre in 2001, and the creative team has finally found the right director in John Doyle, who eschews the romantic realism of Frank Galati’s original staging to give “The Visit” precisely what it needs: a simple and yet very high concept that places Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play, as adapted by Terrence McNally, in a nearly black-and-white world that serves to highlight what is one of Kander and Ebb’s very best scores.

Set in a crumbling, shattered pavilion designed by Scott Pask, “The Visit” unfolds in a bare space where the only moving parts are the actors, a few suitcases, and a coffin that serves as a bed, a chest, a car, and, finally, a coffin that contains Claire Zachanassian’s old lover and much-sought-after victim, Anton Schell (Roger Rees). It’s a James Ensor painting drained of most colors — yellow being the most significant exception — and the mix of Kander’s signature showbiz riffs and his plaintive ballads suit that dark vision to perfection.

Claire is Durrenmatt’s vengeful god, out to make life a living hell for the townspeople who done her wrong long ago, and of course she is played by Chita Rivera, a legit legend who has over a decades-long career come to define the term “Broadway gypsy.” The billionaire Claire is anything but a dame or a broad and she’s certainly no Broadway gypsy. Which is what gives Rivera’s performance such resonance and power: She’s cast way against type, and at age 82 she exposes a facet of her stage persona never seen before. Amazing!

Rivera is well matched by Rees. Loved by the woman who now wants to take his life and unloved by the wife (a hard-edged Mary Beth Peil) who has shared his life, Rees’s Anton gets it coming and going. Rees doesn’t possess a good singing voice, but Kander’s music suits him much better than Stephen Flaherty’s in “A Man of No Importance.” His acting, though, carries the performance. Also, the writers of “The Visit” have wisely developed Anton’s love song “You, You, You” into a quartet that adds the voices of Claire and the two actors playing the young Claire and Anton (Michelle Vientimilla and John Riddle). The song delivers all the poignancy of Stephen Sondheim‘s “One Last Kiss” from “Follies,” one of the few other musicals to depict with such ferocity the harsh, unforgiving toll that life extracts from most people’s visit to this world.

“The Visit” is a tough musical, but then Durrenmatt’s play isn’t exactly easy lifting and McNally doesn’t compromise it with his pared down book. Claire returns to the hometown she despises and offers the bankrupt townspeople billions of dollars if they execute the man who turned her into a whore at age 15. The gift of Kander and Ebb’s score is that it never sentimentalizes the material, but rather deepens our understanding of Claire’s motive and her shared tragedy with Anton.

Last week, the equally moving “Fun Home” opened, and now there’s “The Visit.” Fans of the American musical have much to be thankful for this season, which is a great Broadway season.