Monday, May 4, 2015

New Broadway Musicals—"The Visit" and "Something Rotten"

The Visit
Book by Terrence McNally; music & lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Directed by John Doyle
Opened April 23, 2015
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Something Rotten
Book by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O'Farrell; lyrics by Karey & Wayne Kirkpatrick; music by Wayne Kirkpatrick
Directed & choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Opened April 22, 2015
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Chita Rivera, left, and cast of The Visit (photo: Thom Kaine)
That the ageless Chita Rivera is a living legend is beyond dispute, and that composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb have created challenging Broadway musicals like Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman (which starred a Tony-winning Rivera) and The Scottsboro Boys is unquestioned. But the trio's latest—and final—collaboration, The Visit, shows that even the greatest artists have off days.

Based on the classic The Visit of the Old Lady by German playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Visit follows Claire Zachanassian, the world's richest woman, who returns to her dreary backwater hometown with revenge on her mind, offering billions to the town and its poor inhabitants if local merchant Anton Schell—her first lover who impregnanted the teenage Claire, abandoned and rigged a paternity trial against her, forcing her into a sordid life of prostitution and several wealthy husbands—is killed. 

At first, everyone is aghast, since all assumed Claire returned with charity in mind to help the downtrodden town back to its feet. However, the denizens—including Anton's wife and children—slowly decide that money is far better than morality, and they start availing themselves of pricey items on credit. From there, Durrenmatt's play (and Gottfried von Einem's expressive 1971 opera based on it, which I saw in 1997 at New York City Opera in a less than felicitous production) becomes a shocking and blackly comic expose of hypocrisy and greed.

What the Kander & Ebb Visit originally was I don't know, since I missed previous productions. But it seems obvious that its two-act structure with 23 songs gave the story ample time to work out its deliberate and inexorable march from morality to mortality. But Terrence McNally's book crudely squeezes everything into a lone 95-minute act, offering characters so perfunctorily sketched that they border on caricature, and whose motivation is all but non-existent.  

McNally's book does have a nicely inventive touch. The young lovers Clare and Anton, embodied by two dancers, move around and among the others (the efficient choreography is by Graciela Daniele), joining the aged couple in several striking tableaux. As embodied by the personable John Riddle and exquisite Michelle Veintimilla, they are the best members of a supporting cast that makes a powerful chorus but whose individual performances are one-note.

Kander and Ebb's songs, while not their best, manage to convey the lost love, abandonment, vengeance and dishonesty that accompanies these dark lives...and deaths. Having the blind eunuchs employed as Clare's footmen sing in falsetto (the voices belong to the talented Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer) provides appropriately off-putting vocals that nod to Einem's more successful operatic adaptation.

Playing Claire, a woman of hard-won wisdom after a difficult lifetime of experience, allows the 82-years-young Rivera to sing, dance and act with unsurpassed skill. But director John Doyle unaccountably underuses her, letting her wander in and out of the set when she should be front and center throughout.  

Doyle also has the townspeople dress in rags and heavy, dark eye makeup, which makes them look like rejects from a high school production of The Threepenny Opera. Doyle's staging consists almost entirely of moving the suitcases and coffin for Anton that Claire brought with her around the stage continuously; later, the color yellow, because it's in the script and the title of one of the songs, becomes an arresting but hollow visual motif against the dreary monochrome backdrop. 

Doyle's original gimmick was staging Sondheim musicals with performers playing their own musical instruments; now that he's branched out, his limitations have become sorely evident, especially in his bland stagings of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes, Stephen Sondheim's Passion and now this unenthralling The Visit.

Brian d'Arcy James and Christian Borle in Something Rotten (photo: Joan Marcus)
There's something to be said for a Broadway musical that takes 20 minutes' worth of solid material and stretches it out to 2-1/2 hours, which is what the 10-time Tony nominated Something Rotten does. While its hokey, anachronistic songs and juvenile humor were anticipated by Spamalot, The Producers and even The Book of Mormon, and its eagerness to please its audience (which duly responds in kind) seems desperate, there's undeniable, if disposable, fun to be had.

Twin brothers Nigel and Nick Bottom are playwrights in 1595 London, just as Shakespeare hits his stride with his latest, Romeo and Juliet. To finally surpass the Bard, Nick visits a soothsayer to try and steal William S.'s biggest future hit; Nick is told that something called a musical will become all the rage onstage, so the brothers go ahead and write the world's first: Omelette (said soothsayer misheard Hamlet). 

And that's it. Those who laugh themselves to tears whenever Shakespeare plays are parodied or even mentioned—the show is awash in lines from the Bard's oeuvre, greeted with applause or laughter depending on how many audience members recognize them—or when Shakespeare himself (an agreeably hammy Christian Borle) struts onstage as the world's first rock star will find Something Rotten irresistible. The rest of us will find a fitfully amusing and exasperating musical.

There are solid comic turns from Brian d'Arcy James, who sings, dances and cracks wise as Nick; Brad Oscar, who's feverishly funny as the soothsayer Nostradamus; and Brooks Ashmanskas as Brother Jeremiah, a puritan whose endless double entendres are marred only by the actor's milking every single joke for maximum audience approval.

The book, lyrics and music by Wayne Kirkpatrick, Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell are pastiches of pastiches, some of which work while others mostly cause groans. Savvy director Casey Nicholaw's clever choreography winks at its audience with allusions to countless other shows, especially during the rousing but dragged-out showstopper "A Musical," which perfectly summarizes the unapologetically over-the-top Something Rotten.

The Visit
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Something Rotten
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

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