Saturday, December 3, 2011

Chita Rivera Rules the Stage in Kander and Ebb's "The Visit"

Chita Rivera Dances the 'One-Legged Tango'

The mighty musical-writing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb made history once again this week when the long-running (15 years and counting) revival of Chicago at the Ambassador Theater stepped aside briefly for a special and spectacular performance of the pair’s The Visit, a show that has been long overdue for its turn in the bright lights of Broadway.    

Not only were there two Kander and Ebb musicals sharing the same stage, but the star of the evening was none other than the actress who had created the role of Velma Kelly (opposite Gwen Verdon’s Roxy Hart) in the original production of Chicago over 35 years ago. 

That star was—need I say?—the incomparable Chita Rivera, who, at 78, can still dominate a stage like none other and who repeatedly brought the house down at the singular event,  a fundraiser for The Actors Fund and the Vineyard Theatre. 

The Visit, based on the acid-dripping 1956 play of the same name by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, tells the story of  “the richest woman in the world,” Claire Zachanassian, who has returned to her now-impoverished hometown in post-war Germany seeking revenge on her one-time lover, Anton Schell, who years before drove her away and into a life of prostitution.  In an added twist, her plan involves bringing the townspeople to their knees as well, for they were complicit in her shabby treatment as the much-maligned daughter of a Jewish man and a Gypsy woman.

Ms. Rivera has played the role twice before, beginning with its first short-lived production at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, where it faced the unfortunate timing of opening just after the attacks of September 11, 2001—which rather put a damper on an audience’s desire for such a dark and stinging satire.  A later mounting, a short run at Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theater in 2008, was very well received, however, and I am hoping very much that this week’s one-night event will serve as a precursor to a Broadway or Off-Broadway production.

Kander and Ebb offer up a musical mix of irony, satire, and interludes of romance in their two dozen numbers, supported by Terrence McNally’s adaptation of Dürrenmatt’s play and Ann Reinking’s choreography.  However, since the character of Claire has an artificial leg and walks with a cane (which Ms. Rivera tossed aside for her curtain call to demonstrate that she herself does not need it, thank you), there was not a lot of opportunity for her to dance and show off her ageless gams, save for a number appropriately titled "The One-Legged Tango," which she tackled with great élan.   

It would be remiss of me not to note that Ms. Rivera’s singing voice is rather on the raggy side these days, but she has so much showmanship in her that it hardly matters.  She took charge of that stage from the moment of her first appearance, and never let up for an instant.  Even though it has been more than three years since she last performed the role, she was completely off book for the benefit production (all right, almost completely; there was one tiny lapse in which she sidled over to take a peek at the script in one of the other performer’s hands, but she didn’t miss a beat in doing so).

This is not, of course, a one-woman show.  The rest of the cast was solid, starting with John Cullum, another Kander and Ebb alum, having starred in last year’s The Scottsboro Boys.  Cullum, three years Ms. Rivera’s senior, did need to keep his copy of the script open throughout, but he made a fine Anton Schell, a man who progresses from a desire to flee his fate to accepting it--or at least appreciating its ironic elements.

While the show’s focus is on the pair of long-ago lovers, within whom there still lives a spark of genuine mutual affection, the cast included 21 other uniformly strong performers, along with a small orchestra under the fine direction of Jon Kalbfleisch.  If you have seen the production of Chicago, the musicians used the same tiered space across the width of the stage. 

Musically, Messrs. Kander and Ebb have incorporated a wide range of styles, including singing parts for countertenors (relevant to the plot), and connections to Brecht and Weill and to their own enduring hit musical Cabaret.   

One of the great shames is that no recording of The Visit has been made to date, a mistake that I hope will be rectified.  There are many songs that stand out, even on first hearing, among which are a lovely little waltz, “You, You, You,” and the Act I curtain number, “Yellow Shoes.”   

While I took great pleasure in what was essentially a staged reading, I would love to see The Visit given a full-scale New York production, and soon enough so that Chita Rivera can remain its star! 

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