- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

Signature Theatre has saved the best for last, with its four-month Kander & Ebb Celebration culminating in a haunting production of “The Visit.” Directed by Frank Galati, the musical is at once chillingly sophisticated and poignant - like having all the emotions wrung out of you with a string of baroque pearls.

“The Visit” is a musical adaptation by the team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb (the last one on which the famed duo collaborated before Mr. Ebb’s death in 2004). The musical retells Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1956 tragicomic morality tale about a rich, elderly woman named Claire Zachanassian (Chita Rivera), who returns to her Swiss hometown of Brachen after many decades away. Clad in snow white with diamonds to match, Claire arrives in Brachen perched on a coffin. Her entourage includes two blind eunuchs (Ryan Lowe and Matthew Deming, marvelously unsettling in both their vampiric visages and their unearthly falsettos), a sepulchral butler (James Harms, elegantly servile), and a pair of bodyguards (Howard Kaye, Alan H. Green) decked out like liveried footmen.

The one-time cultural epicenter - Goethe spent the night, Brahms wrote a quartet and they manufactured cuckoo clocks - has fallen into bankruptcy and despair. Claire offers to be the town’s Lady Bountiful … on one condition: The citizenry must murder shopkeeper Anton Schell (George Hearn), her first and greatest love who disgraced her when she was 17, forcing her to flee the town and become a courtesan.

It’s a rather grim business, but the beauty of “The Visit” is how deliciously Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb, aided by Terrence McNally’s classy and cynical book, revel in the macabre aspects of the story. Ah, the sartorial, acidic splendors of this musical, ranging from the desultory clogging in the show’s opening number and the desperate wishful thinking in “A Happy Ending” and “A Masque” to the ratcheting, perilous optimism in “Yellow Shoes” and the tongue-in-chic patter song “I Walk Away” - in which Claire recounts her multiple nuptials, delivered with soignee aplomb by Miss Rivera.

“The Visit’s” sardonic flair recalls Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb’s “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” only in this case, the show’s icy heart is warmed by the most unlikely of love stories. “The Visit’s” ghostly lovers are two people who essentially died young, but were forced to keep on living.

Claire and Anton’s youthful, hopeful selves are evoked in an aching pas de deux by dancers D.B. Bonds and Mary Ann Lamb, and the show is also haunted by the lovely specter of Ann Reinking’s Bob Fosse-esque choreography and by the exquisite tang of the lyrics by the late Mr. Ebb.

Miss Rivera may be the diamond-hard class of this mood piece, but the strong-voiced Mr. Hearn provides its soulful core in a performance that deepens from the geniality of an aging rogue to bravery and acceptance. The magnetism between the two is enough incentive to see “The Visit,” but all the performances are immaculate, from Mark Jacoby as the compromising Mayor and Jeremy Webb as the conflicted schoolmaster, to the sweetly crumbling innocence of Cristen Paige and Kevin Reed as Anton’s children.

No one does sin like Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb, but with “The Visit,” you get the best of both worlds - a musical that exposes our basest needs and desires, and a soaring love story almost too monstrous to watch.

****

WHAT: “The Visit,” music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Terrence McNally

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 22.

TICKETS: $56 to $77

PHONE: 703/573-7328

WEB SITE: www.signature-theatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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