Broadway's 2014-15 season came to a joyful close April 23 when one of its most abiding and beloved legends returned to her lifelong playing-field. In a slow, measured, regal walk, Chita Rivera reached center-stage of the Lyceum and brought her subjects (all that could be shoehorned in) to their feet as one, cheering madly.
She is Claire Zachanassian, one of the world's richest (and, it turns out, wickedest) women, returning to Brachen, Switerland, the hometown that had expelled her as a wanton, pregnant teenager. Over the years, the town's fortunes have dwindled while hers have soared — albeit, costing her an arm and a leg (literally).
"My plane crashed in Tierra del Fuego," she says at one point. "I was the only one who climbed out of the wreckage. I'm un-killable!" The line draws applause as strong as her entrance.
The lady has come home with a coffin to fill, like a prescription (again, literally). For 10 billion marks to the town and 2 million to each of its inhabitants, she would like it filled with Anton Schell (Roger Rees), the man who seduced, abandoned and betrayed her years before. The townfolk are outraged at the idea — until they're not. Hardly the stuff of which musicals are made — unless they're Kander and Ebb musicals — and this, indeed, is the last one from John Kander and the late Fred Ebb.
The Visit is based on Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1958 grim satire of the same name, made memorable by the last of The Lunts on Broadway. The movie version starred Anthony Quinn and a monumentally miscast Ingrid Bergman. This musical edition was to have arrived on Broadway 14 years and one month ago starring Angela Lansbury and Philip Bosco, but Lansbury (who was in the opening-night audience) withdrew because of her husband's failing heath. Rivera, who owes her two Tonys to Kander and Ebb and Terrence McNally (The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman) signed on, tried it out in Chicago shortly after 9/11 and has stayed with it.
"I'm just so grateful — I really am," sighed a profoundly relieved Rivera when she arrived at Espace for the after-party. "It's been a long road. Many people have experienced that. I've never experienced it before, but it was well worth the wait."
The mass adoration that started with the curtain call continued at the party, which she negotiated like a walking, talking photo-op, graciously accommodating all comers. "I keep wanting to look over my shoulder to see who they are applauding."
It was for you, hon, and it was on both sides of the footlights. Jason Danieley, who played the town schoolteacher, was literally jumping for joy at the curtain call.
"I was happy for Chita beyond belief," he later said. And he goes all the way back to the very first reading of The Visit, in which he played Bosco's son. "Before Chicago and before D.C., I did those readings, too. I just never did the production until now.
Director Doyle pretty much removed all suspense and any hope for a happy ending by cutting to chase and planting the coffin on stage for the duration. In this streamlined production, it arrives with Claire's radically reduced entourage, which now numbers only two eunuchs and a butler, all of whom skulk about ominously.
Follies-like visions of the young Claire and the young Anton also skulk about, rude reminders of what the two leads come from. "That was in the piece already," he said. "I just developed it. No songs were cut — just reprises — and not much dialogue." McNally, who did the cutting himself, approves of keeping the story to one act. "It plays better this way," the playwright admitted. "Before, it got a bit ponderous."
The show's big hit, an exquisite 11 o'clock ballad for Rivera called "Love and Love Alone," sounds like "The Third Man Theme" as written by Nino Rota. It even employs a zither, Kander boasted. "It may be the best love lyric Fred ever wrote."
David Garrison as the town mayor is not immediately recognizable. "My hair is moussed within an inch of its life, then there's about 70 years of makeup on my face — plus the white beard. The first time I came out like that, the stage manager called Security to have me taken off the stage. She didn't recognize me. True story."
He voiced the prevailing opinion: working with Chita was "heaven on earth, and may it never stop. There were tears on the stage. Fred Ebb was on that stage, too, tonight. It was an incredibly historic opening. You just don't have 'em like that anymore."