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Chita Rivera in “The Visit.” | THOM KAINE
Chita Rivera in “The Visit.” | THOM KAINE

Magic in the theater isn’t always made by a soaring Peter Pan or a falling chandelier. It can also happen when audiences experience how illuminating darkness can be, when the spectacle is created not by stage mechanics but through human machinations. Such is the power of “The Visit,” the fascinating and thrilling new musical with a book by Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, now at the Lyceum.

The piece is based on a 1956 play of the same name by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and McNally has artfully reduced the three-act original to a spare 95 minutes, strategically focusing its characters and themes. The result is sustained tension that aims Shakespeare’s “mirror up to nature” at humanity’s bleaker aspects. Challenging as that is, “The Visit” succeeds because its directness and lyricism make it a heartfelt and deeply engaging experience.

Claire Zachanassian, the richest widow in the world, returns to her hometown of Güllen, an unspecified town in Europe that has been devastated by war — presumably World War II — with its residents on the brink of starvation. Her return is seen as the town’s salvation, but she exacts a price for rescuing it. In exchange for dedicating her untold riches to the town, Claire demands the life of Anton Shell, the man who jilted her when they were young and she was pregnant because she was from the wrong side of the tracks. In her humiliation, she turned to prostitution, but ironically in the end married very well, giving her both wealth and a taste for revenge.

Revenge long in the making in “The Visit”; “Queen of the Night” is a wonderful, sexually charged diversion

The drama unfolds with resonant themes about the corrupting effect of wealth. Can justice be bought, and is revenge the same as justice? Is society so easily corruptible? When does expediency overwhelm morality?

“The Visit,” though, is much more than an intellectual exercise. Kander and Ebb’s score is one of their most sophisticated, and McNally’s book is frank and authentic. Claire’s bargain is positioned as a simple transaction, with no judgment passed — which has the effect of amplifying its horror. The creators’ decision to add two characters —the ghosts of young Claire and Anton as lovers — emphasizes the corrosive effects of time on romantic love. And in Claire’s insistence that her youthful romance be enshrined for eternity, we see the tragic dimensions of her character.

John Doyle’s staging keenly captures the humanity of the characters beneath their symbolism. The story’s gentle unfolding is chilling, and Scott Pask’s crumbling railroad station set, Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes, and Japhy Weideman’s lighting perfectly complement the mood.

The cast is a dream ensemble featuring Jason Danieley, Mary Beth Peil, David Garrison, and Tom Nelis, with John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla, as the young Anton and Claire, delivering sensational performances. Roger Rees is wonderfully understated and detailed in his portrayal of the conflicted Anton, who emerges as the piece’s moral center. Rees captures every nuance of the role.

And then there’s Chita Rivera. With an ability to grab hold of a Broadway house with the slightest movement of her shoulder or the flash of an eye, she is simply radiant. Star power aside, Rivera delivers a clear portrayal of Claire’s many layers and a fragile heart that still beats with youthful longing beneath her gowns and jewels. Whether in a pas de deux with her younger self or simply standing downstage, she owns every moment of the piece, and the juxtaposition of her hot passion lost and her cold revenge is profound. When Claire is onstage, we, like the people of Güllen, barely see anything else.

Last summer, I raced to Williamstown to see this show for fear that after so many false starts it might not make it to Broadway. “The Visit” is finally here, and all I can say is you should race out to see it immediately.

The Queen of the Night. | MATTEO PRANDONI
The Queen of the Night. | MATTEO PRANDONI

Is “Queen of the Night” a nightclub act? A circus? An elegant supper club? Whatever you want to call it, it’s wonderful. Set in the Diamond Horseshoe lounge deep below the Paramount Hotel, it is a recreation of the nightclub that Billy Rose ran for years, complete with a sumptuous dinner, acrobatics, and dance.

The artistry of the performers is unquestionable, and the story is slight: The Queen of the Night is relinquishing her crown, but her successor must give up love to step into her place. Can she do it? That at least is what I saw; my companion for the evening didn’t get any of that and instead simply reveled in the wonderful performances, an outstanding meal, free-flowing cocktails, and efficient dinner service that had its own delightful theatricality.

The show manages to be at once sexually charged and innocent, opting for frissons of intimacy more effective than something more overt. The evening is a subterranean escape from the ordinary, a journey into a different and wholly delightful entertainment. And, whatever you do, don’t miss the last special dessert.

THE VISIT | Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri., Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $29-$149 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 95 mins., no intermission

QUEEN OF THE NIGHT | The Diamond Horseshoe at the Paramount Hotel, 235 W. 46th St. | Tue.-Sun., 7:40 p.m. | $150-$495, including dinners & other percs at ovationtix.com or 212-706-7344 | Two hrs., 30 mins.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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