On paper, turning Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor (2008) into a stage musical seemed like a good bet. It’s a well-regarded indie hit, which received an Oscar nomination for star Richard Jenkins. Its heart is in the right place regarding immigration, an issue we may never satisfactorily resolve. And a main character is a drummer, so the musical element in already built in.
But paper isn’t production. And times change, quicker for any development cycle to process. What was progressive in the waning days of the Bush administration plays differently in the Biden and BLM era, where representation is a more urgent issue and The Visitor registers as a white savior narrative. More is required of a quaint do-gooder tale if it’s to continue to speak to an audience, and The Visitor, the musical, never finds the right words.
With a book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey (and lyrics by Yorkey and music by his Next to Normal collaborator Tom Kitt), the musical tracks fairly close to the film story. Stuck in a dead-end career teaching economics at a Connecticut college grumpy widower Walter (David Hyde Pierce) is surprised to find two immigrants squatting in his New York City apartment. Rather improbably (particularly in the show, which rushes certain plot points) Walter agrees to let Tarek (Ahmad Maksoud), a Syrian drummer from Michigan, and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux), who sells her jewelry at a local bazaar, live with him. The arrangement proves agreeable, with Tarek teaching Walter how to play his djembe. But when the police nab Tarek in a misunderstanding at a subway turnstile, then turn him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for likely deportation, Walter is jolted from his middle-aged complacency. Trying to sort out what he knows must be a bureaucratic error he finds an initially reluctant ally in untangling red tape in Tarek’s mother Mouna (Jacqueline Antaramian), who arrives in the city when she loses contact with her son.
A problem with the show is that the other three characters must ally with Walter, who has the apartment and the finances to effect a bit of change in their hardscrabble lives, rather than the other way around. Realizing this the musical throws a few numbers their way–Zainab and Mouna, who dislike one another, bond singing “Lady Liberty,” one of several proudly position-papery songs criticizing unjust U.S. policy-making. But they remain stubbornly two-dimensional. The show peaks when it’s able to leaves politics aside, as when Walter and Tarek jam with musicians for the percussion-heavy “Drum Circle,” the highlight performance, or when Walter and Mouna’s relationship deepens to the tune of the lovely “Such Beautiful Music.” But much of it idles in the gray-barred confines of ICE, with Walter and Tarek commiserating and silly choreography for Tarek’s fellow inmates as they rock out their frustration. Best known for his many, many play credits, journeyman director Daniel Sullivan seems uncertain how to make a musical take flight. (That said he was up against it having to cut this one down from two acts to an intermissionless 90 minutes during fraught previews, during which the actor originally cast as Tarek quit.)
Some of this might have been forgiven had we been treated to a star turn. “Mildewed” fits Pierce like a glove, one that he’s worn before, but Walter’s change of heart comes so quickly the characterization is weightless. More of an issue, however, was his weak singing voice the night I attended. Sitting in the third row I had trouble hearing him, and his big, summing-it-all-up number “Better Angels” was often lost in the mix. Some of the music is salvageable but on the whole The Visitor has shown up too late to make much of an impact.