Chita Rivera and the cast of The Visit, directed by John Doyle, at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Chita Rivera and the cast of Terrence McNally, John Kander, and Fred Ebb's The Visit, directed by John Doyle, at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
(© Paul Fox)

The Visit has become an ironically apropos title for John Kander and the late Fred Ebb's dark musical, now running at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Like a distant but loyal relative, the show makes its third stage appearance in its 13-year history (now pared down to sharp single act) with Broadway legend Chita Rivera leading the way as its tireless champion. Tireless may even be an understatement for the octogenarian, who seems to shed decades as she saunters on the stage in radiant white furs, glowing against her signature jet-black hair.

Rivera stars in this musical adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Der Besuch der alten Dame as Claire Zachanassian, a billionairess who has made a successful career of strategic widowing. For the first time in years, she plans a visit to her European hometown of Brachen, which, since her departure, has fallen into economic ruin, giving its residents particular motivation to roll out a red carpet for her auspicious arrival. Her ex-lover Anton Schell (played by Roger Rees) is specially tasked with convincing Claire to invest some of her fortune in the town's recovery, using their romantic past to his advantage. However, after revealing her history of injustice with the self-serving people of Brachen — particularly her old flame — she lays down her terms: money for a life.

With this sinister proposal, Kander and Ebb — along with their frequent bookwriting collaborator Terrence McNally — are given a blank canvas to explore the themes they've serviced best throughout their illustrious careers. Human greed, conformity, and corruption — topics their most highly lauded musicals Chicago and Cabaret deftly tackle — are once again the centerpieces of this intriguingly dark premise, rarely seen in musicals that make it to today's Broadway stages.

The complex contours and ambiguities of these themes, however, are not probed nearly as deeply here as in the iconic duo's earlier masterpieces. From the moment Claire throws down the vengeful gauntlet, the people of Brachen all but promise to live up to their morally blemished reputations. They spend some time feigning indecision, but the audience never doubts the identity of ultimate victor between greed and virtue.

Director John Doyle's signature macabre minimalism lends to the stage an immediately striking aesthetic. Set designer Scott Pask has created an imposingly vast, dome-shaped, vine-covered hall to house all of the action, which is accented by Japhy Weideman's dramatic lighting and Angelina Avallone's ghoulish makeup to emphasize the townspeople's destitution. These theatrical visual effects, coupled with the performers' exaggerated delivery, injects the piece with a distinctly Brechtian tone. Yet rather than broadening its scope, this stylized approach seems to trap the play on a one-track route of uncompromising fatalism, eliminating the possible tension that could be added by broaching a counterargument — or at the very least offering a more detailed examination of its nihilistic philosophy.

Kander and Ebb's sweet but meandering score reflects a similar lack of tension, with most of the numbers (primarily ballads) expounding on the past rather than advancing the present. The recurring theme "Yellow Shoes" offers the most distinctly Kander and Ebb tune, adding the eerie visual of a mindless herd donning more and more bright yellow accessories — the color of wealth that is soon to send Claire's sacrificial lamb to the gallows.

Even in the score's less memorable moments, the music is performed handily by Williamstown's first-rate cast. Judy Kuhn brings her strong voice to the part of Anton's jealous wife, Matilde, while Jason Danieley's soaring tenor stands out as schoolmaster Frederich Kuhn, who offers the last, though admittedly feeble attempt at dissuading the town from acting on its bloodlust.

Rees and Rivera, though not the strongest singers, make for an interesting pair to watch as they act out their unconventional love story, built on a complex foundation of love, hate, and mutual distrust. Our investment in their relationship is largely owed to their younger counterparts, played by John Bambery and Michelle Veintimilla — a possible homage to a similar device employed in James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim's flashback-filled musical Follies. The youthful couple ignites the top of show with their fiery entrance, elegantly performing Graciela Daniele's sensual choreography. Like a pair of ghosts, the young lovers shadow their older selves throughout the production, securely fastening the knot that has kept these central characters tied to each other, even in Claire's long and storied absence.

As the lights fade on the once-more dark and empty stage, the impact of the haunting story can be felt hanging over the audience. The production, however, has yet to strike the magic combination of musical and dramatic elements that will make the shadows of Claire Zachanassian's "visit" continue to linger.