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A Visit to Chicago

Back from Chicago, Mr. Nelson reports on seeing The Visit, South Pacific, and The Full Monty there. logo

Chita Rivera and John McMartin in The Visit
(Photo: Eric Y. Exit)

Last weekend's high-alert hysteria made for white-knuckled but mercifully uneventful flights to and from Chicago. That toddlin' town is quite tuneful these days, it being a dense and delightfully lively intersection of Broadway's past, present, and possible future.

Future first, however imperfect: The gorgeous new Goodman Theater launched its 2001-2002 season with the world's first look-see at the long-postponed musical of The Visit, based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt's grim play about the richest woman in the world returning to her impoverished hometown and throwing money at the populous to get them to murder the man who seduced and abandoned her when she was an innocent lass of 17.

Ah...that's the ticket for a John Kander-Fred Ebb musical! They do just dandy with dark subject matter and settings, whether it's Nazi-infested Berlin (Cabaret), a Depression-era dance marathon (Steel Pier), politically oppressed South America (Kiss of the Spider Woman), or the tabloid-tainted Windy City in the '20s (Chicago). Here, The Boys sink gloriously to the occasion, mining inherent miseries into a lavishly lilting counter-score--in effect, going to hell in a handsomely embroidered handbasket.

Grim is grist for their musical mill, and the first act finale is a perfect example of how they can translate heavy material into musical comedy manna: The selling-out of the townsfolk is shown in a song-and-dance number choreographed by Ann Reinking, called "Yellow Shoes" (which the cast members are suddenly wearing). In terms of melody and phrasing, it sounds like a second chance for Steel Pier's "Second Chance"; but even Kander & Ebb echoes are enchanting, and this is a score Broadway is hungry for. It's likely you'll be hearing "Love and Love Alone" a lot, plus "At Last," "Winter," and "You, You, You." Terrence McNally's book honors the source but finds its own voice, much the way he did for The Full Monty. And Frank Galati, who helmed the Tony-winning Ragtime and The Grapes of Wrath, gives the show a brooding intensity.

I'm not saying that Chita Rivera, in the role that was written for and subsequently rejected by Angela Lansbury, is miscast (oh, say it: miscast); but her character does have one leg, and it seems almost criminal to have her confined to one production number with her boys. She gives it a game go, of course, and it's an act of kindness on her part that her presence has gotten the show up and hobbling--she owes her two Tonys, for The Rink and Spider Woman, to Kander & Ebb & McNally. Still, it's hard to buy her cruelty-and-class act. (Polly Bergen could play this blindfolded.)

John McMartin is a splendid choice for her sacrificial swain; he's had practice, having played the non-singing version of the part opposite Rachel Roberts in a Phoenix revival of the Dürrenmatt piece in the '70s. Two original Ragtimers deliver strongly, as well: Mark Jacoby as the manipulative mayor and Steven Sutcliffe as the schoolteacher who's the last to don the yellow shoes (although the latter's big number, "The Only One," could stand rethinking and rewriting). I also liked McKinley Carter as the mayor's wife--especially her gossipy, "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little"-esque number with Ami Silvestre, titled "You Know Me"--Guy Adkins and Cristen Paige as McMartin's children, and Adam Pelty as Rivera's seventh husband.

The Visit runs through November 3, and I urge a visit. The last Kander & Ebb show before this one--Over and Over, their musical adaptation of The Skin of Our Teeth--never got beyond Washington, and there's no telling how far this one will go, with or without Chita. A show so publicly orphaned rates a kind fate. Let's just say it deserves a Broadway run.



Erin Dilly and Michael Nouri
in South Pacific
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Rodgers & Hammerstein's 52-year-old South Pacific charged through Chicago last weekend in road-company form and its producers, The Weisslers, have been making noises in Variety that this is a blueprint of the version they hope to bring to Broadway. Say this for the blueprint: The performances are already in place--more, one suspects, thanks to "production consultant" Jerry Zaks than to the designated director, Scott Faris.

Michael Nouri, who took over the male lead from Richard Stilwell a month into the tour, could improve or be improved upon--there are better de Becques out there--but Erin Dilly is right on the money as Nellie Forbush. If she comes in with the show, she could find herself up against Sutton Foster, who replaced her in Thoroughly Modern Millie during rehearsals of that show's pre-Broadway production in La Jolla. Dilly is a doozy, but so far her performance is a pretty well-kept secret: She was sidelined on opening night and the reviews went to her understudy. (I saw the show in its third week).

Lewis Cleale is as able a Cable as we've seen in some time, and Armelia McQueen makes a wonderful Bloody Mary. Vocally, she and David Warshofsky's Luther Billis are letter perfect. Some attempt has been made to streamline the book--World War II has always tended to drown out the songs in Act II--and the nipping-and-tucking works much to the show's benefit.


Rod Weber in The Full Monty
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

The Second City is the second city to see the tour of The Full Monty. After this gig, the national road company will call a halt so that the production can be pared down physically for future gigs. Washington and Boston seem to have gone by the wayside (temporarily?), but the company will start strippin' for action again in April in L.A.

The tour opened to mixed reviews in Toronto but drew a warmer reception in Chicago--and rightly so. It's an honorable facsimile of the Broadway production. Rod Weber, who is alphabetically billed last among the principals, comes in first in performance; his Jerry Lukowski is as good as if not better than that of Patrick Wilson, who was damned good on Broadway. It's great to have Kaye Ballard back on stage, doing what comes so naturally to her--stealing scenes!--as the old-vaudevillian accompanist to a ragtag team of wannabe Chippendales from the working-class ranks. Larry Marshall, Danny Gurwin, Daniel Stewart Sherman, Steven Skybell, and Chris Diamantopoulos heed the call with grit 'n' gusto, and Andrea Burns stands out among the womenfolk.


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