John Waters writes in one of his books (I think it was Crackpot) that he wishes that someone would discover an unpublished Jean Genet novel. He's read everything extant by Genet, he says, and longs for that special feeling of experiencing something truly great for the first time.
That's how I felt watching The Visit, the hauntingly satisfying "new" musical with music by John Kander and lyrics by the late Fred Ebb: thrilled to experience something genuinely ambitious and frequently wondrous, and yet sad that most of the genius involved in crafting this stunning show is either gone or in its dotage.
The Visit was one of four musicals that Kander and Ebb were working on upon Ebb's death in 2004. Two of these shows have subsequently made it to Broadway: Curtains and The Scottsboro Boys. One has yet to see any significant exposure: a musical version of Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, called All About Us.
And then there's The Visit, which had a well-received run in 2008 at The Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, although talk of bringing that production to New York never bore fruit, purportedly because of the 2008 recession. Thankfully, The Visit is now enjoying a stunning production, significantly revised and shortened from previous versions, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, playing now through August 17th.
The musical is based on the eponymous 1956 play The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and the musical sticks fairly close to its source. The story concerns one Claire Zachanassian, who returns to her hometown after becoming the richest woman in the world. She offers to save the town from its ruinous state, but with one chilling proviso: the town must kill her former lover, Anton Schell, now an indigent shopkeeper with a wife and two children.
If that conceit seems static -- I mean, once the horrifying condition is revealed, where do you go from there? -- both the play and the musical follow up with an intriguing series of developments and revelations that add layers to the seemingly inert premise. The musical is by turns arresting, poignant, and darkly humorous. It also manages to paint a balanced portrait of horror and justice: Claire is clearly a deeply wronged woman, and yet Anton makes for a penitent and sympathetic foil. When we discover exactly what Anton did to Claire, we almost accept the righteousness of her demands, the justice inherent in her savage proposal.
I've seen many musicals attempt to balance dark subject matter with a satisfying sense of entertainment and humor, and it's a really difficult task to pull off. (Just ask the authors of Lestat, Bare, Heathers, The People in the Picture, Scandalous, Soul Doctor, etc.) Librettist Terrence McNally finds just the right balance of the edgy and the enjoyable in The Visit, something he was unable to do for Catch Me If You Can.
Composer John Kander matches McNally's balance with a lush and soaring score with numerous complex contrapuntal passages. Kander and Ebb together crafted songs that can easily stand among their classics, including "Love and Love Alone," a triumphant 11 o'clock number for Claire, and "You, You, You," a soaring love duet for Young Claire and Young Anton, who act as mostly silent witnesses throughout the entire show. (Young Anton is played here by golden-voiced Boston Conservatory grad, John Bambery. Full Disclosure: John is a former student of mine, but trust me, the guy's got the pipes. Yowza.)
The Visit benefits greatly from the sensitive direction of, and stark presentation by, director John Doyle. (And, in case you're wondering: No, the performers are not required to play instruments here.) In concert with scenic designer Scott Pask (who creates a gasp-inducing unit set) and costume designer Ann Hould Ward, Doyle has fashioned a hauntingly expressionistic, black, white, and gray production, punctuated with increasing accents of vibrant yellow, a symbol of the avarice that overcomes the townspeople as they gradually turn against Anton.
For many people, the big draw of this production will be the first-rate cast, lead by the irreplaceable Chita Rivera, so fluid and sharp, even at age 81. Roger Rees fares considerably less well as Anton: he's more than up to the acting challenge, but his singing voice is sadly lacking in strength and sustain. Also notable are Judy Kuhn, laser-sharp as always as Anton's beleaguered wife, and Jason Danieley, positively heartbreaking as the schoolmaster, and Anton's last remaining ally.
If The Visit never finds the thematic cohesion of, say, Cabaret or even The Scottsboro Boys, it still has much to reveal about the dark side of human nature and the artistic ambitions of musical theater. I'm not sure The Visit has much of a commercial future, but it would be great to see one of the Broadway nonprofits like the Roundabout or Lincoln Center scoop it up for a limited run.