Among the works featured at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer was Kander and Ebb’s musical THE VISIT. I saw the last performance a week ago. The show is an adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play of the same name about a wealthy woman who returns to her impoverished home town with a bizarre proposal: she will give the town a huge summer of money if the townspeople will put her ex-boyfriend to death.
Durrenmatt’s play is one of the classics of the post-World War II absurdist theatre. In some ways this version, with a libretto by Terrence McNally, takes some of the edges off. But the songs, by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, are good, and the Williamstown is excellent.
Its director, John Doyle, is one of the best working in musical theatre today. He gets great imaginative mileage of minimal effects: in THE VISIT, the only props are suitcases and a coffin that stays on stage from the show’s opening. The cast is also distinguished, with Roger Rees and the legendary Chita Rivera in the leads. This production merits a New York showing.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic CAROUSEL, currently playing at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown has problems quite different than those of THE VISIT. The play on which it is based, Ferenc Molnar’s LILIOM, has not aged well. It presents a carnival worker, named Billy Bigelow in the Rodgers and Hammerstein version, who is physically abusive. In trying to show him as worthy of redemption, it comes perilously close to justifying domestic violence.
How difficult it is, then, that CAROUSEL is probably the best musical ever written. Like Stephen Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD, it is a musical coming close to being an opera. Interwoven with its spoken dialogue are demanding singing, sophisticated musical composition and story-telling dancing. All of which make this work particularly appropriate for an opera theatre such as Glimmerglass.
Glimmerglass Opera’s productions have been uneven of late, but Charles Newell’s direction in CAROUSEL is spot on. He even enhances the work with such effects as the staging of Billy Bigelow’s funeral. So, too, does Daniel Pelzig’s choreography add to the show, while being respectful to Agnes DeMille’s original dances. When Billy Bigelow, now a spirit, echoes his daughter’s dance movements, we see how akin he is to this troubled young woman.