Williamstown Theatre Festival: ‘The Visit’ New life for a 14-year-old show


WILLIAMSTOWN -- When Chita Rivera got the call that on-again-off-again "The Visit," composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb and playwright Terrence McNally’s musical take on a dark, bitterly satiric 1956 tragicomedy by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, was on again, she couldn’t say no.

"I’m not sure how this all came about but they told me John Doyle was directing," Rivera said in a telephone interview during the early stages of rehearsals in Williamstown, where the musical officially opens 8 p.m. Saturday on the Main Stage, after final previews tonight and Saturday afternoon.

"John has such a gentle, caring way about him. He is very smart. He really understands the play.

"Another way to look at it, Graciela Daniele (with and for whom Rivera has a certain rapport and admiration) is choreographing. This is not a dancing show but it wants to have special movement."

"The Visit" has been generating interest since it was first announced in 1998. The fact that it has yet to make it to Broadway is the result of a combination of circumstances that began when Angela Lansbury, who was originally cast in the leading role of Claire Zachanassian -- an obscenely wealthy older woman who returns to her poverty stricken hometown and offers its residents a way out of their impoverished state in exchange for their help in her plan to exact revenge against her former lover, Anton Schell, who betrayed and abandoned her in her youth -- dropped out to take care of her ailing husband.

Rivera -- who had starred in Kander and Ebb’s "Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" -- took over in time for "The Visit’s" six-week run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in the fall of 2001. Frank Galati was directing. But, according to a recent story in the New York Times, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, prospective New York backers and theater critics were reluctant to fly to Chicago so when the run ended, so did hopes of bringing the show to New York. Then, in 2004, Ebb died, leaving Kander on his own professionally to work, at least in this case, as his own lyricist.

Hope stirred again when, in 2008, Rivera starred in and Galati directed "The Visit" at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., but mixed reviews squashed any interest in New York.

An attempt to mount "The Visit" at the Public Theater in New York died, the Times reports, when two major investors backed out. Rivera last appeared in the musical a few years ago in a benefit reading for Broadway Cares.

Everything might have ended then and there were it not for McNally’s husband, Thomas Kirdahy, a lawyer turned producer who, according to the Times, felt the show needed a radical rethinking and who better to do that than director John Doyle, whose revisionist takes on the Stephen Sondheim musicals "Sweeney Todd" and "Company" captivated Broadway audiences and critics. When, by chance, the Times says, Kirdahy ran into Doyle on an airplane, he discussed the project with him. After Doyle subsequently looked over the material, the two then approached WTF, where Doyle’s "Ten Cents a Dance" had been produced in 2011.

Doyle went to work right away. He merged "The Visit’s" two acts into one. He eliminated and / or combined characters. The emphasis, Rivera says, now is less on the villagers and more on the relationship between Claire and Anton, played here by Roger Rees.

In addition, says Rivera, "John is keeping a younger version of Claire and Anton on stage at all times so we see how they were in their younger days, how much in love they were.

"Anton, though, was a bad boy. He got greedy. So did the town."

Rivera says McNally has held closely to Dürrenmatt’s play.

"What you do see here," she said, "is that Claire is as vulnerable as Anton is. She’s always been in love with him and will always be in love with him."

The music, Rivera says, "is very rich and full. I often wish I was Renée Fleming when I’m singing the score."

The songs are so integrated into McNally’s script, Rivera said, "that what you have is a serious play with music. It’s a love story; a European love story."

Naturally, with the reawakening of "The Visit," there is renewed interest in New York. Whatever happens, Rivera says, "just being here in a room with all these creative people is a gift.

"So, here we go again. It’s all about fresh starts, new beginnings."


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