Full disclosure: I have known and loved Chita Rivera and her talent since we were virtually toddlers. I was then (we’re talking the early 1950s) a baby agent and she had just emerged from the choruses of road companies into a featured role off/off Broadway in a tiny revue aptly named The Shoestring Revue. I wandered in to see it one night, and was immediately struck by Rivera, then called O’Hara, as she danced out a number called “Garbage”, which had been sung earlier by fellow newcomer Bea Arthur. When later in the show, Rivera nailed a comic characterization of Marilyn Monroe, in a sketch about the new blonde movie bombshell, I was hooked. I went backstage, we met in her dressing room (a sink in the kitchen. as I recall) and by the time I left, I had one of my very first clients. I represented her from that moment on until almost 20 years later when I left my agency career behind, but by that time she had shown the world that she could play hot European ladies like Fifi in Seventh Heaven, Puerto Rican Anita in West Side Story, bright secretaries like Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, fantasy figures like the Sorceress in Merlin, a Gypsy princess in Bajour and a Greek Leader in the national company of Zorba! She’d even spent a summer starring in a spectacular at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, and when I told her she shouldn’t do it, that next she’d be in burlesque, she said half the talented gypsies on Broadway were in it, and she was honored to have been invited to join them. I was able to negotiate more money than she’d ever had on Broadway, and we both spent a happy summer, she splashing about in Jones Beach, I collecting commissions and feeling grateful.
My early days as agent with John Kander and Fred Ebb were not all that different. I met them separately when each was writing with another partner. When each lost that partner, their mutual publisher (Tommy Valando) and I plotted to put them together. Tommy introduced them to each other, and I took Ebb to see Kander’s A Family Affair. a modest musical that was struggling through its ultimate 9 week run. When the half filled house had finally offered its meager curtain call applause, Fred looked at me and simply said, “Yeah, I could work with him.” And he did for the next 44 years. I had represented them separately, now I handled them both. Now that I’ve joined the critical fraternity, I was so hoping I’d like The Visit, which is the last of the four musical scores Fred left behind when he died in 2004. Kander and Rivera have stuck with this musical since the start in 2001, and it took 14 years and three regional tryouts to finally attract a management team willing to risk Broadway with its dark tale of passionate romantic love, betrayal and revenge. Did I like it? I loved it, more with each viewing up to its current version under the inventive staging by John Doyle.
Rivera’s character (Claire Zachanassian, the world’s richest woman) returns to the small town from which 50 years earlier she had been booted because she’d had an affair with Anton Schell. The town, and Anton, had turned on her, and he went off to marry another, a woman whose father could offer him potential ownership of a shop. Claire left town in disgrace and now has returned with an offer to save the town from financial ruin on one condition, that they take Anton’s life in exchange for enough of her vast fortune to save them all. Based on a play by Friedrich Durrenmatt that once served Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, The Visit offers her the best role of her illustrious career, and she plays it like the great star she has become.
It’s difficult material, but Terrence McNally’s book and the Kander and Ebb score have turned what could have been murky and painful to watch, into a melodic and adult story of true love gone wrong and it is mesmerizing. Slowly, as the townspeople turn from outrage to greed, we follow with interest because never do the writers or director allow it to become less than layered and believable. There is melody in it, and by including two actors who are constantly present as the young Anton and Claire, the bond once formed between them is so beautifully integrated into the writing, we genuinely go with the inevitability of the conclusion. I won’t tell you how these gifted artists work through to it, but I found it moving and resoundingly satisfying.
Anyone truly moved by great theatre will enjoy this. And the privilege of seeing the final product of these 3 titans is one for which I for one am most grateful. They are supported here by excellent work by Roger Rees as the man who must finally pay for his early misdeeds, by Jason Danieley, the town’s truly righteous schoolmaster, and by others who bring conviction to their own roles in the dark tale. If I’ve made it sound depressing I’ve done a bad job, for it is anything but. Rivera’s stillness, her ability to convey all the heartbreak she’s known, retaining just enough wit and humor to make her totally accessible to us, are remarkable, the fulfilled promise she showed in her early outings on Broadway. I wish her, and her company, the great success that their superb work deserves, giving all of us, late in the season, a memorable evening of musical theatre.
Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.