Why did I have a far more muted reaction to “The Visitor,” a well-acted, well-meaning new musical at the Public Theater about the friendship between a widowed economics professor and an immigrant couple, than I had to the movie of the same name on which it is based? The musical has the exact same plot as the acclaimed 2007 movie; it is created by the Pulitzer-winning songwriting team behind “Next to Normal,” Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, with a book by Kwame Kwei-Arma, a much-admired British playwright and artistic director born of Caribbean migrant parents; it stars the reliable David Hyde Pierce.
Yet as it opens tonight, there have already been public echoes of my lack of enthusiasm, with the departure of one of the principal cast members after criticizing aspects of the show, and evidence that Yorkey too has disassociated from the show (his bio is not listed in the program); there are other clear signs of disarray, as well as unsupportive comments in the theater chat rooms.
The answer is, at least in part: These are different times.
Much has happened since the movie was made in 2007, not the least of which is the greater awareness by the average American towards the issues of immigration, thanks in part to the most recent ex president’s demonizing of immigrants.
So the story of a middle-aged East Coast intellectual — an economics professor! — who suddenly awakens to the plight of the undocumented in America feels dated. Where has he been?!
This may be one reason why the musical feels geared for children, which is ironic: The film won a “Movies for Grownups Award” from the American Association of Retired Persons.
Then there’s the issue of a story centering on how a lonely, well-off white man finds new meaning in his life by trying to help the two struggling immigrants. Walter Vale (Pierce), who long ago lost interest in his teaching job in Connecticut, is returning to the apartment he keeps in New York City when he discovers that Tarek (Ahmad Maksoud) and Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux) are living there; a swindler had conned them into renting Walter’s apartment – which was no more plausible in the movie. When they discover they’d been swindled, they apologize, and leave in a hurry. But Walter chases after them. He tells them they can stay the night.
This is a little more plausible. Tarek is a Syrian-American musician who plays the djembe, the African drum. Walter’s deceased wife was a musician, and we’ve earlier seen Walter captivated by a street drummer.
Zainab, a jewelry designer from Senegal, is wary of the stranger’s invitation, but Tarek says “What choice do we have? Besides, I think he likes us.”
“You, perhaps” Zainab says.
“Everyone likes me.”
“Yes, I know.”
(The implicit possibility of homoerotic attraction is resolutely unexplored.)
The friendly Tarek encourages Walter’s interest in drumming, mentoring him, and they become buddies. Then one day, as the two men carry their drums from a drumming circle, Tarek is falsely arrested in the subway for fare-beating, and then sent to a detention center because he’s undocumented. Walter becomes increasingly embroiled in the fight to keep Tarek in America.
In 2007, filmgoers nationwide might have been more able to identify with Walter (portrayed by Richard Jenkins, who was nominated for an Oscar his performance) as a stand-in for themselves, and be moved by how he changes; comes back to the world from his grief. (One might even argue that the visitor in the title is Walter.) New York theatergoers in 2021 are more likely to be immigrants themselves, and in any case, more likely to find Walter a problematic protagonist, after years of “who gets to tell our story.” Tarek is blameless, and appealing, cuddly even, but the story is not from his point of view; he’s the Other.
This was the objection that the musical’s original Tarek, Ari’el Stachel (Tony winner for “The Band’s Visit”) publicly expressed: If Tarek grew up in Michigan (as the script indicates) why would he have a Syrian accent? (For the record, Maksoud, who was the understudy for Tarek, does retain the character’s accent, which, yes, doesn’t make too much sense, but he makes the character winning.)
It’s hard to get past what makes this musical dated. Many of the Golden Age musicals are dated too, some of them in much the same way (“The King and I”?) but offer compensation with a glorious score. The score in “The Visitor” would not be mistaken for Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it has its moments: Of some two dozen songs, the ones that stood out for me cleverly incorporated the drumming that is central to the plot; there’s an especially lively duet between Tarek and Zainab in “My Love Is Free;” and Pierce delivers his 11 o’clock number, “Better Angels,” with great force and no little heart. But the lyrics do none of the music any favors. The one song they’ve turned into a video, “Lady Liberty,” a duet between Zainab and Tarek’s mother Mouna (portrayed by Jacqueline Antamarian) – “Hey, Statute of Liberty, tireless lady/ We’re women who work hard like you/When will our trials be through?” –is one they might have been wiser to have scrapped.
There are other good things to say about “The Visitor.” I was struck by the clever use of the ensemble, often emphasizing not just how crowded the streets of New York but how diverse its humanity. That was a nice touch by Daniel Sullivan, an experienced, Tony winning director with some three dozen credits as a director on Broadway, none of them for a musical. But it’s hard to disagree with the drumbeat against “The Visitor.”
Public Theater through December 5, 2021
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
Music by Tom Kitt
Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Book by Kwame Kwei-Armah & Brian Yorkey
Choreography by Lorin Latarro
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Based on the Groundswell Productions and Participant Media motion picture written by Thomas McCarthy
Cast : Jacqueline Antaramian (Mouna), Robert Ariza (Ensemble),Anthony Chan (Ensemble), Alysha Deslorieux (Zainab), Delius Doherty (Ensemble), C.K. Edwards (Ensemble), Will Erat (Ensemble), Brandon Espinoza (Ensemble), Sean Ewing (Ensemble), Albert Guerzon (Swing), Crystal Joy (Swing), Marla Louissaint (Ensemble), Ahmad Maksoud (Tarek), Sahar Milani (Swing), Dimiri Joseph Moïse (Ensemble), Takafumi Nikaido (Ensemble/Drummer),David Hyde Pierce (Walter), Paul Pontrelli (Ensemble), and Katie Terza (Ensemble).