A New Kind of Spider Woman: Chita Rivera Wows Broadway Crowd in Concert of Kander & Ebb's The Visit

Chita Rivera, John Cullum and more talk about the one-night-only Nov. 30 Broadway concert of The Visit, the dark musical by Terrence McNally, John Kander and Fred Ebb.

Chita Rivera at curtain call
Chita Rivera at curtain call (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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Hell hath no fury like a scorned town slut who comes back home late in life, a millionairess many times over, and demands the local denizens administer some outstanding checkbook justice to the guy who done her wrong when they were young. You've not seen such a show of hands since "Murder on the Orient Express"!

In The Visit, this amounts to municipal murder, pure and complicated, and it comes with music, too — an original Broadway score, achingly exquisite and buoyantly melodic, that would dress up any season (up to and including the one that is confronting us now with Spider-Man, Bonnie & Clyde, Lysistrata Jones, Rebecca, Ghost, Newsies, et al).

Okay, so you don't go out humming the morality. When, in their glorious 42-year collaboration, did John Kander and Fred Ebb, ever make it easy for us? Lynch mob and Nazi rule and trial-by-newspapers — this is grist for their musical mill — and, usually, the more difficult the subject, the more soaring the sounds.

John Kander
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The hard life-lessons which they have punctuated with jaunty, lilting melodies hailed from a same-named 1956 play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt which had served The Lunts well for 189 performances (their last on Broadway). Terrence McNally did the musical-book adaptation, re-creating the incredible situation outlined in Paragraph One with more than a gingerbread dash of Brothers Grimm. Because the creators faithfully follow Dürrenmatt's blueprint (they paint themselves into a very dark corner and won't take the easy way out) it has taken a decade for the show to have its day on Broadway. That day was Nov. 30, at the Ambassador Theatre, for a one-time-only benefit for The Actors Fund and for the theatre that gave Kander and Ebb their last stand, The Scottsboro Boys — the Vineyard.

The show was originally set to open on Broadway March 15, 2001, with Angela Lansbury as "the richest woman in the world," Claire Zachanassian, but the actress withdrew because of the failing health and subsequent death of her husband.

Chita Rivera took over the star part, opposite John McMartin, the following fall for a full staging at Chicago's Goodman, directed by Frank Galati and choreographed by Ann Reinking. But the national fallout from 9/11 weighed like lead on the show, and it was considered much too dark for the times, and that mood hadn't lifted three years later when a version tried to — and couldn't — get off the ground at The Public with Rivera and Frank Langella.

George Hearn in The Visit at the Signature Theatre.
photo by Scott Suchman

In 2008, Galati and Reinking resuscitated the show for a run at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, with Rivera and George Hearn in the leads and a strong ensemble charging away on all cylinders. The production was well received, but the talk of bringing it to Broadway dissipated and eventually disappeared. It finally arrived for one-night-only — one-part benefit, one-part backer's audition — so producers, too afraid to go to Chicago after 9/11 or too lazy to go to Arlington for its second coming, could check it out as a bare-bones, script-in-hand concert edition.

"I've heard nothing," Rivera admitted at the after-party wind-down at John's Pizzeria, but it was clear her heart was high and hopeful. "We'll see what happens so say your prayers." This has been her standard response every critical stop of the way, and it is obvious she has grown in the role and gotten used to it. Claire, the Lady Z she plays, is like a return of her Spider-Woman — the tarantula division. Over the years her steel resolve has thickened, and her preposterous plan for revenge takes hold.

She is more challenged as an actress than she has ever been before — and not just because, as a dancer, she is working with the handicap of having to play a character with a wooden leg who comes and goes on a sedan-chair throne toted by two burly beefcakes and guarded by a couple of nattering eunuchs. Happily, for a song in the second act ("I Would Never Leave You"), she joins her eccentric entourage for some high-stepping. You never saw a wooden leg kicked so high. The audience went wild.

Rivera admitted she had to modify her dancing a bit for the Ambassador — but only because "the stage is very small here. Otherwise, it's about the way it's always been."

Her favorite moment is the gasps she gets making her final appearance on stage. "I've always loved that moment," she said, "because it really finishes the story."

Chita Rivera and John Cullum
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

John Cullum, the limberly Interlocutor of The Scottsboro Boys, became for the event the third Anton Schell in a row to incur Claire's lethal wrath.

"It's great to do a Kander-and-Ebb again, with Terrence McNally, but the real thrill was to be able to work with Chita again," he said, having not done it since 1969 when they did a two-city tour (L.A. and Frisco) for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera.

"We did a Meredith Willson musical called 1491. I played Columbus, and she played my mistress — a lusty wench, as I remember. We didn't make it to the New World."

The show that won Cullum a Tony nomination and the Theatre World Award, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, is making its first Broadway comeback Dec. 11, in a radically re-imagined form. "I know that the book needed something," Cullum recalled about the original. "It didn't work that well originally. The music was gorgeous. I tried to rewrite some of the lines and get the book a little straighter. It was long-winded, particularly for the part I played, but I didn't do anything nearly as drastic as these people are doing — and I hope it succeeds."

They were supported by a Visit ensemble of 21, most of whom came from the Signature production and all of whom were still wearing Reinking's choreography well.

"Annie did come to help us," noted Brian O'Brien, one of the taller drinks of water among the town folk who really struts his stuff for the "Yellow Shoes" first-act finale . "She was in town last week because she was 'dance supervisor' for Mandy and Patti. All the movement you saw tonight was Annie's."

One of Chicago's "secret weapons" (a surefire Billy Flynn stand-by), O'Brien was pleased with the re-turnout. "It was great to work with the team we had down at Signature. I think we had a majority of the cast back."

Mark Jacoby and Jeremy Webb
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Mark Jacoby, presently a wizard on the road in the national tour of Wicked, flew in for his third term as the town's opportunistic mayor. "I did Chicago and I did Arlington," he admitted. "I think Chita and me and James Harms, the butler, are the three who have done every production. I love the show. Everybody who's been in it, I think, loves the show. It's one of those shows where the actors really get into it. It's just intriguing, and, of course, Chita is the greatest person to be around. John Kander is the dearest man. It's such a warm atmosphere."

Kander, too, was cheered by the assembled players and felt they all rose to the occasion. "They flew themselves in to be here. It was thrilling — particularly because we had practically no rehearsal and the cast never had a run-through."

Not the least of the show's virtues is a heartbreaking ballad, arguably one of their upper-echelon songs, called "Love and Love Alone," and Rivera has included it in her nightclub act just so it will get out and about. "I think it may be the best love lyric that Fred ever wrote," Kander said. "It's a brilliant lyric, and I'm very proud of him for doing it."

Deserving a deep bow for the evening was its director, Carl Andress. "We put it together in two weeks with this extraordinary company — Chita and John and Annie Reinking and the Signature people. I'm very proud of all of us," he said.

Chita Rivera
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Next for Andress? " Charles Busch and I are doing Times Square Angel for the 13th year in a row next month at Theatre for the New City, and we're doing a new play in the spring called Judith of Bethulia. It's an Old Testament epic, told before as a silent film in 1914, starring a great star whose name escapes me at the moment. In fact, the only name I know right now is Chita Rivera. She defines Star and a great gal. She's an extraordinary woman, and I am honored to call her my friend." Leading the parade of the first- (and only-) nighters were a bunch of The Scottsboro Boys ( Colman Domingo, Forrest McClendon, Julius Thomas III, Derrick Cobey and Christian Dante White) plus Sharon Washington), Scottsboro and Steel Pier librettist David Thompson, producers Sonia Friedman and Tom Kirdahy, The Fantasticks wordsmith Tom Jones, lyricist Amanda Green, No Way To Treat a Lady's Douglas J. Cohen, comedienne-producer Jamie de Roy, A Little Night Music's Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Erik Liberman (Groucho of the last Minnie's Boys), Chicago's Brent Barrett (the concert was on the set of the smash revival of the K&E show) and Actors Fund supporter Brian Stokes Mitchell.

To learn more about the works of Terrence McNally, John Kander and Fred Ebb, or shows that starred Chita Rivera and John Cullum, visit PlaybillVault.com, the newly launched largest Broadway database on the internet.