Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Definitely Worth - The Visit - Musical Review

The Visit - Signature Max Theatre - Arlington, Virgina (Greater Washington D.C.)
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Book by Terrence McNally, Directed by Frank Galati

I went to DC again to see the Signature Theatre's final Kander and Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret) celebratory production of one of their last musicals they wrote before Ebb died in 2004. Originally meant for Broadway in 2001 but never mounted, then produced in Chicago in 2004, it's being remounted by the small regional theatre with an all-star cast and crew which is what made me notice this small theatre to begin with. The Signature has been having quite the year, with an amazing production of Kiss of the Spiderwoman, and then the tumultuous ups and downs with the now already legendary flameout of Glory Days which was nurtured here.

So I'm glad to say that they end their season with a terrific production of a beautifully haunting and difficult musical that was far more enjoyable and likable than I expected. I thought I would maybe admire the dark cynical piece that seemed like it would play slow (read: boring) but while the musical doesn't gel the musicality with the dark themes as well as Kander and Ebb's other greats like Chicago and Cabaret, it is still a fascinating little gem that is a far superior improvement over their last Broadway trifle Curtains.

Of course, having Frank Galati (who directed the magnificently epic Ragtime, still one of my favorites of all time) directing certainly helps the moodily dark but comical piece and he infuses as much energy, lightness and odd silliness in a tale about a rich woman who returns to her downtrodden hometown to enact revenge on her past. She offers to save the town by offering money with one provision that is sinister, until you hear why she's been so vengeful in the first place.

The town reacts in horror but then starts to consider their options as the power of money starts enticing them to a world they had never truly experienced yet always longed for. Meanwhile, the woman begins to have moments of sympathy (usually in song) as she gets re-acquainted with those who wronged her all those many years ago in her youth.

The bitter woman in question is played by the legendary Chita Rivera (still kicking, literally, at 75, and who was in the ORIGINAL West Side Story. Holy COW!). I had never seen her before but she truly is legendary with enormous presence and soul that helps transform an unlikable character into one that is fascinating and magnetic! Her wronged Claire is paired with George Hearn's Anton Schell, a man from the past, and Rivera and Hearn truly have a chemistry together that adds some warmth and friction into the drama between them.

The chemistry is mirrored with Mary Ann Lamb and D.B. Bond as their younger counterparts as they dance away under more innocent times (and D.B. Bond's beautiful voice sings "You you you/Look at Me/Winter (Reprise)" in such a handsome frame).

There are oddities like 2 Eunuch's and killer henchman that accompany the rich woman, and add a surrealness much like Emcee in Cabaret, and some songs sound like they could have been swapped from that musical, but I mean that in a good way and I didn't mind or notice if Kander and Ebb borrowed some of their beautifully luscious score from past shows.

"Yellow Shoes" terrifically ends the first act as an anthem for the villagers who get a taste of the sweet life with some great choreography by another legend, Ann Reinking (Chicago). The villagers are played by a great ensemble with Mark Jacoby (Ragtime) leading as the mayor and a terrific standout in Jeremy Webb's schoolmaster.

Cristen Paige, Kevin Reed and Karen Murphy are solid as Anton's family as they slowly shift opinions and move their allegiances to align with the general villagers in a haunting yet beautifully simple decision.

If there is one fault that I've heard people mention, it was the expectation of coming to see Chita Rivera, so famous for being an amazing dancer, and having very little of her trademark hoofing. She gets to tap around a bit in the second act (with her legs still kicking up higher than her shoulders, a move I don't think I've EVER been able to do, let alone at her age (I hope I'm still STANDING at her age let alone dancing, singing and acting)) but while Chita has never been known for her voice, her raspy sound really adds a richness to her character, and she can still throw some humorous zingers

As a whole, I admit that something still felt missing, especially compared to the Kander and Ebb's better works, but while the sum of the wonderful parts might not have added up to an eternal classic, The Visit is certainly a small gem that is well worth the... ahem... visit, and the Signature's production, including a beautifully simplistic thrust stage set and subtle yet stark lighting continues its solid reputation (despite what Glory Days had tarnished) for great theatrical productions.

The Visit - Signature Max Theatre - Arlington, Virgina (Greater Washington D.C.) - ****(4 stars out of 5)

Here are my reviews from the Signature's previous productions:

Kiss of the Spiderwoman - ****1/2 (4.5 stars out of 5) (My Review)
Happy Times - *** (3 stars out of 5) (My Review)
Glory Days - **** (4 stars out of 5) (My Review)

As a final tip, the Signature Theatre has $20 rush seats discount tickets sold usually 30 min. (officially according to the website, in practice I find about 1 hour before the show) for any shows that have tickets left and so far in my experience (and based on the ticket lady's relaxed reaction), Saturday matinee's never seem sold out, even for hot shows that sell out during the evening performances.

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