When a project has circled Broadway in various incarnations for as many years as "The Visit," one may be forgiven for lowering expectations. When the score is the last one written by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, we might suspect that the men responsible for "Cabaret" and "Chicago" were past the prime of their creative powers.
And when Chita Rivera has been the theater legend attached to the musical during almost 15 years of development, its arrival could very well come with a sense of obligation -- you know, let's get this staged, finally, as a gesture to yesterday's honored artists.
Forget all that. "The Visit" is a haunting, haunted knot of Expressionist storytelling, a masterly 100-minute powerhouse with liltingly gruesome songs that create their own macabre world unlike anything onstage in recent memory.
This will not be everyone's idea of a night on the town. But Rivera, an astonishing 82, is riveting as the mysterious, vengeful grand dame -- the richest woman in the world -- who returns to the town that cast her out when she was 17. Roger Rees is shattering, brimming with hapless vanity, as the pathetic shopkeeper who broke her heart so many years ago.
Under John Doyle's taut, unflinching and strangely enchanting direction, the production takes us to a city that got rich during World War II, then inconceivably went bankrupt. The shabby townsfolk, covered in dust, are first positioned under the overgrown arches and broken skylights of the gnarled, once-grand courtyard (designed by Scott Pask).
Enter Claire Zachanassian, embodied by Rivera in a long, white gown trimmed in white fur (costumes by Ann Hould-Ward). She is flanked by a ghostly entourage -- three men in white face, blacked eye sockets and formal dress. One is her butler. The others are what she calls her "eunuchs," countertenors who sing eerily high.
"I married often and I widowed very well," she explains, then offers the greedy, hypocritical town an unthinkable deal. Meanwhile, characters move around on a black rolling casket, while beautiful dancers Michelle Veintimilla and John Riddle mingle in Graciela Danielle's choreography as memories of betrayed young love.
Adapted from a 1956 tragicomedy by Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the chamber work has the feel of a dark European fable -- albeit one with timeless theatricality. The music is woozy with disturbing dance rhythms, dripping with music-box sarcasm that evokes "Chicago" and "Cabaret" without feeling recycled.
Then there is Rivera, with her steely, gravelly voice and the resolve of a character who says, "I am unkillable." We dare you to take your eyes off her.