There’s an unmistakable thrill in seeing the 82-year-old Chita Rivera in a John Kander and Fred Ebb musical. No other performer—with the exception, of course, of their Oscar-winning Cabaret star Liza Minnelli, whom the duo famously dubbed “Liza With a ‘Z’”—interprets their songs better. Even when it’s imperfect Kander & Ebb—as is their newest (and final) collaboration, the 15-years-in-the-making oddity The Visit. Rivera, after headlining their Chicago, The Rink, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, imbues their colored-light-filled, razzle-dazzling songs with a natural ease and economy that other performers could spend another 82 years trying to manufacture.
For proof, look no further than the 11 o’clock number—or in the case of this 100-minute show, the 9:35 number—“Love and Love Alone,” an exquisite ballad in which Rivera’s character, the obscenely rich widow Claire Zachanassian, pauses to address the audience before one final meeting with her former lover Anton Schell (Roger Rees). And even though she’s paying for Anton to be killed—no spoilers here, considering that Claire arrives followed by a coffin that never leaves the stage—there’s still love between them. “Make each day your own,” Rivera sings ruefully, to the oom-pah-pah strains of a sinister waltz. “When tomorrow’s come/And your heart is stone/What has made it numb?/Love and love alone.” She hardly moves—except to lean forcefully on Claire’s cane (note: Claire’s, not Rivera’s!)—but the effect is positively hypnotic. And then…she dances. Not Fosse-style hip rolls or Robbins-esque kicks, but an elegant, wistful Graciela Daniele-choreographed pas de deux with her younger self (Michelle Veintimilla).
Would that Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, could see Rivera having her way with that showstopper. Or with her first number, “At Last”—some of the late lyricist’s finest work—a kicky listicle where Claire tells the destitute residents of the broken-down town Brachen (get it?) just how she got so insanely wealthy. “I married very often, and I widowed”—wink!—“very well,” she smiles, before detailing, among other deceased husbands, the “small Chinese” who succumbed to “Asian flu” (“Ciao, Mister Chu!”) and the Warsaw-born Slav who became her “Polish joke” (“That poor old Pole, God rest his soul”).
The pleasures of The Visit are likely restricted to Rivera fans and Kander and Ebb devotees—of which there are undoubtedly many—or admirers of the 1956 Friedrich Dürrenmatt source play, of which there might, possibly, perchance, be a few. Terrence McNally’s libretto does a commendable job unearthing the love story between Claire and Anton and bringing it to the surface. Yet director John Doyle, who’s lately showed a knack for similarly intimate musicals like last year’s Allegro and 2013’s Passion–both produced Off Broadway at Classic Stage Company–seems more enamored of the tragicomic elements (e.g. Claire’s eunuch sidekicks) of Dürrenmatt’s story. It’s one thing to highlight the grotesque greed of the townspeople—in fact, J. Jared Janas’ corpse-like makeup design and Japhy Weideman’s chiaroscuro lighting are both exceptionally haunting—but Doyle goes a little overboard on the symbolism. (The less said about “Yellow Shoes” the better.) The shiny black coffin spends more time center stage than Rivera. Death is imminent—we get it, we get it. B