- Chita Rivera: Not your average septuagenarian.
This faceless existence was underscored in the recent two-night stand of Lord of the Dance at Playhouse Square. That insanely popular show, replete with overamped, prerecorded tap sounds and numbingly repetitious, stiff-armed Celtic dances, continues to delight devotees. But not a single member of the young and hardworking cast was even named in the program, let alone offered a brief bio. Talk about your interchangeable parts. No doubt, creator and former lead dancer Michael Flatley needed more breathing room for his ego.
A far different -- and much more involving -- encounter with the world of dance is available in Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, now at the Palace Theatre. Though Rivera considers herself a dancer, she has always been much more than that. Virtually all her roles -- including iconic ones such as Anita in West Side Story and the title role in Kiss of the Spider Woman -- have required the full complement of acting and singing, all of which she accomplishes with high-voltage intensity and finesse.
Essentially a one-woman show, augmented by a supporting ensemble of eight dancers, Life trains the spotlight on Rivera -- an amazingly supple and sensuous septuagenarian. And while some of her high notes and high kicks have lost a little elevation, her lusty alto growl is firmly in place, allowing her to transfix the audience.
The evening is structured chronologically, as our hostess conducts a guided tour of her life, from the musical roots of her Hispanic family to the pinnacle of Broadway fame. Written rather perfunctorily by Terrence McNally, with a couple of pleasantly forgettable original songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the piece's magic is totally embodied in Rivera and her command of the stage. With the flick of a hip or the cock of an eyebrow, she communicates more than most performers can with their whole bodies.
Born Dolores Conchita Figuero del Rivero, Rivera changed her name (she actually wanted to be called Chita O'Hara, after movie star Maureen), but never altered her individuality and unique energy. That is, no doubt, how she won a scholarship to study at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet and, at 17, was hired for the touring company of Call Me Madam, even though she had gone to the audition only to support a friend (who wasn't cast).
These stories tumble out easily as Rivera glides across the stage, singing snippets of tunes from her early shows, when she was "ready to crawl through broken glass" to get a featured role. Her audition for West Side Story is engagingly told, as she butchers "A Boy Like That" until composer Leonard Bernstein advises her that her character, Anita, is really pissed. Responding to his direction, Rivera spits out her classic rendition, and the rest is theatrical history.
Oddly enough, with all the fire that Rivera brings to the performance, her stories are disappointingly plain and predictable. Speaking of her marriage to Tony Mordente, she points out -- somewhat obviously -- "The day our daughter Lisa was born was the happiest day of my life; the day we split was the saddest." And she goes on to heap praise on her co-stars -- particularly Gwen Verdon, whom she compares favorably (if a bit unbelievably) to Charlie Chaplin. Yes, she does pout a bit about not being given the role of Anita in the movie version of West Side Story, but she shares no inside info.
If the anecdotes are a bit bland, there are plenty of compensating pleasures. When Rivera discusses some of the choreographers she has two-stepped for, it's like a capsulized master class in dance. She explains how Jerome Robbins blended ballet and jazz into a drama of movement, and about the precision demanded by Bob Fosse. During this sequence, the ensemble dancers glide behind Rivera in silhouette, capturing the familiar poses and postures of each choreographer's dance grooves.
Indeed, director Graciela Daniele cleverly uses silhouettes thrown onto a translucent screen throughout the evening to convey the power of a dancer's image. When Rivera speaks of working with Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie, chorus member Lloyd Culbreath's shadow nails the comic actor's lanky, loose-limbed style. And April L. Nixon almost ignites the scrim during Rivera's sexy turn on "Big Spender."
With two Tony Awards and a prestigious Kennedy Center honor on her résumé, Chita Rivera has nothing left to prove to anyone. But she still sparkles, from the opening number to the "All That Jazz" ending. So rouge your knees and roll down your stockings -- this one's a keeper.