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First Nighter: The Visit Overstays Its Welcome, Henry IV Stumbles

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THE BERKSHIRES -- This time of year, things are so beehive-hectic in these parts that it's easy to drive around on a single Saturday and see, say, The Visit at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the compacted-into-one Henry IV Part I and IIat Shakespeare and Company.

Since I've just done exactly that, I'm in a position to say I'm not certain how strenuous an effort you'd want to put into notching those two on your mountain-rambling belt if what's on at Jacobs Pillow or Tanglewood is also calling out.

The Visit is, needless to say at this late date, the musical that Terrence McNally, John Kander and Fred Ebb adapted for the stage -- and for their pal Chita Rivera -- from Maurice Valency's translation of Friedrich Duerrenmatt's bleak drama about how quickly justice is dispatched when greed takes precedence.

As it's never a good idea to declare that certain properties shouldn't be musicalized, I won't say as much about The Visit. I will say that, though Kander and McNally, on behalf of themselves and their late partner Ebb, have been attempting to get their version right for some years now, they still haven't. It just may be that they're not the ones to bring this recalcitrant property to the musical stage successfully.

The creators have come nowhere near the magic that Durrenmatt's play had abundantly when Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt performed it in 1958, as directed by Peter Brook. (Now there's a dream team for you.) They plumbed the personal tragedy that befell richest-woman-in-the-world Claire Zachanassian (Rivera here) when she returns to Brachen, the (fictional) village of her low birth with the intention of bribing the townspeople. Her offer is that the bankrupt town will receive a monumental fortune on one condition: Claire's childhood lover and the man who abandoned her when she was pregnant, Anton Schell (Roger Rees here), must die.

But whereas in its original stateside production Duerrenmatt's script emerged as a shocking, heart-breakingly mesmerizing parable, the musical -- now an intermissionless 90 minutes -- comes off as glum, repetitive and mechanical. A plot about plotting a man's death increasingly heads towards its own ignominious demise.

From beginning to end, the Kander-Ebb score adds very little -- well, nothing -- even while intermittently trying for cheery entertainment. The problem may stem from the team's long-running commitment to dealing with what they believed were Important Issues and not the frivolous concerns that too long drove musicals. Their intentions are admirable, but too often the songs they produce, often ironic, are simply too grim, too sullen. For instance, "Yellow Shoes" in this list is meant to be devastatingly charming but doesn't attain that level.

As for direction, John Doyle derives little cogency from a cast that for the most part circulates endlessly, either dragging valises or sitting on them under Scott Pask's two-tier set topped by skylights featuring broken glass. A coffin is also regularly dragged about for foreboding's sake.

Near as I remember from the time of the Lunts, the eunuchs in white face and green shoes now accompanying Claire are a McNally-Kander-Ebb addition. Nor did Duerrenmatt include incarnations of young Claire (Michelle Veintimilla) and young Anton (John Bambery). These added figures -- young Claire and Anton in flashbacks to their far more innocent past -- give Graciela Daniele opportunities for dance to enliven and enlighten the proceedings.

Only intermittently, however, does that occur, and then less and less effectively as the 90 minutes tick-tock-tick-tock by. More and more the interludes impress as diversions not fulfilling their hoped-for purpose.

Because gloom only partially due to Japhy Weideman's lighting quickly settles over Brachen, the cast is frequently swallowed up. Rees certainly lends the hunted and haunted Anton his best emoting, but, given the anemic script, he ultimately seems condemned not only to a sad demise but also to a workmanlike performance. Others sent into focus oblivion include Jason Danieley, David Garrison and Judy Kuhn. She's Anton's frumpy wife Matilde, once a well-heeled catch. Musical lovers may want to note that The Visit is the second musical in a row -- Fun Home was the first -- in which Kuhn has been married to a man whose future is running out. Let's assume this kind of type-casting won't plague the always admirable Kuhn.

Then there's Rivera, beloved by audiences unafraid to show devotion by leaping to their feet at the curtain call. Once one of Broadway's leading spitfires, she's now as stately as the Queen Mother. Garbed gorgeously in Ann Hould Ward's floor-length white traveling suit and black wig and manipulating a handsome walking stick, she sings well and otherwise makes potent Claire's inflexible vengeance as combined with a continued love for Anton.

Does Rivera dance? Not exactly. In recent appearances she makes a show of straightening her shoulders (épaulement is the ballet term, isn't it?) and raising a leg while moving in rhythm. Daniele has her run through the motions most effectively in a duet with Veintimilla that has Claire's past and present meet and mingle. Rivera's routines take on a kind of Hello, Dolly!-esque "look-at-the-old-girl-now-fellas" air that has its rewarding moments.

So it's our Chita Rivera paying a visit but not really Friedrich Duerrenmatt's unforgettable play.

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Jonathan Epstein is not only the man who redacted William Shakespeare's Henry IV two-parter into one three-hour piece. He also directs the Shakespeare & Company production and appears outstandingly as the title character -- a monarch still tormented by the guilt he feels after deposing Richard II and a father concerned that his wayward son Prince Hal (Henry Clarke) is no Hotspur (Timothy Adam Venable) and will never be worthy of the throne.

The best that can be said of this adaptation is that it comes to pertinent life in only fits and starts. Clarke's Hal is volatile and also thoughtful. Leaping about the stage, even climbing Travis George's serviceable set in one dashing moment, he does himself proud enough to make an observer hope he soon gets to do Henry V.

Playing Sir John Falstaff mildly well, Malcolm Ingram vivifies the speech about honor by amusingly making the audience respond to his questions about honor's dubious benefits. Kevin G. Coleman is only so-so as the Earl of Northumberland but perfection as a grinning, obtuse Justice Shallow. Michael F. Toomey's Bardolph is agreeably jolly.

That's about it for the more than acceptable thesping. The others don't rise above middling. One is well below that measure. Granted, Ariel Bock is okay as Queen Joanna, but she's inept as an ear-trumpet-wielding Justice Silence and as Mistress Quickly, where her notion of characterization is repeatedly planting her hands on her hips. No, ma'am, carrying on resolutely akimbo doesn't cut it.

Unfortunately, this Henry IV is riddled with questionable directorial notions. Having Shakespeare's figures, dressed in Arthur Oliver's (extremely ugly) period costumes, talk on cell phones is distractingly silly. So is having a computer shot. Sending the warring parties out with both swords and pistols is outlandishly awkward, even though Toomey, doubling as fight director, does nicely when he can.

The biggest loss, however, is the complexity of the Falstaff-Prince Hal relationship. Somehow with all the duties he's taken on, Epstein has lost sight of the affection and awe with which Hal regards Falstaff in the earlier Henry IV Part I scenes. This aspect of their companionship has to be illustrated. Otherwise what the audience sees from start to finish is a pompous old man -- an inveterate liar -- whom Hal has reason only to disdain. The outcome is that Hal's eventual dismissal of Falstaff registers as overdue.

It's a lamentable lapse, and this radically abridged Henry IV, Parts I &II is the poorer for it.