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Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life

A great stage star is poorly showcased in this disappointing revue/review of her life and career. logo
Chita Rivera with Liana Ortiz in Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Chita Rivera deserves standing ovations for the 55 years she's been dancing her heart out and her feet off on Broadway and elsewhere, for the long legs she's kicked over her head more times than a conductor can shake a baton at, for every roll of the fingers on both of her expressive hands. She deserves them for her Latina fire and ice, for the show-biz gypsy in her soul, for her very smoky, slightly nasal, entirely committed singing. She deserves them for her mambo in West Side Story, her breezy terping in Bye Bye Birdie, her jazz calisthenics in Chicago, her dark mystery in Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the oomph that she pumped into another dozen or more musicals that did or didn't make the grade.

Yes, this great star is worthy of standing ovations despite Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life, which smarmily begs ovations on her behalf. Watching the new show is akin to examining a diamond set in tin; the diamond is cheapened, and the tin looks no better for its upscale association. Terrence McNally, who wrote the show's book, is to be chastised for the note of false-modest self-congratulation that Rivera repeatedly strikes in this two-act celebration. He presumably appreciates Rivera's abilities, since he supplied the libretti for Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink, and the musical adaptation of The Visit, which has not yet made it to New York but was seen at the Goodman in Chicago in 2001. (All of those shows, plus Chicago, have music and lyrics by longtime Rivera associates John Kander and Fred Ebb). So it's an unpleasant surprise that McNally has reduced this dancer's life to a series of in-jokes and remarks that may regale New York City musical comedy buffs but will leave out-of-towners puzzled and dissatisfied.

As for special material writers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, they should have been sent back to the drawing board and charged to come up with something better than the two numbers they've hammered together for this show: "Dancing on the Kitchen Table," about Rivera's raucous family dinner gatherings, and "A Woman the World Has Never Seen," about her preparations for her many diverse roles. And director Graciela Daniele needs to be grilled as to why she allowed a top-notch hoofer like Rivera to spend more than two hours floundering in a miasma of sound and dance bites when she should be floating on a cloud of illuminating reminiscence. But it should also be kept in mind that the star must have had a certain amount of control over the material and, therefore, bears some responsibility for its superficiality.

So much is deficient about this revue/review of the 72-year-old Rivera's life that it's difficult to know where to start and stop itemizing. The opening sequence quickly segues from a young Conchita Del Rivero (Liana Ortiz) listening while her saxophonist dad plays "Perfidia" to the mature Rivera reflecting at the White House on the night in 2001 when Kennedy Center honors were conferred on this D.C. native. A snatch of dialogue that Rivera delivers here encapsulates the prevalent mood: "I've already made my first boo-boo of the evening. I asked one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to bring me a drink. I thought he was a waiter. Thank God, it wasn't the President." (Anyone who doesn't mind this precious recollection, and more like it, should step right up to the box office.)

The low point of the show occurs during the second half, when Rivera -- who continues to dance with her signature verve -- talks about the men in her life. Recalling ex-husband Tony Mordente and near-miss inamorata Joe Allen (of the eponymous show-business beanery), she embarrassingly fails to put the tang in an accompanying tango. Her partner for this weird routine, choreographed by Daniele, is Richard Amaro, whose fling at bravura descends into bravado.

This is still the great Rivera, of course, so there are occasional high points -- or, to be more accurate, higher points. Immediately following the lovers' tango, the star chats about the superb choreographers with whom she has worked. While the members of the ensemble cross behind her in a continuing, silhouetted frieze, she gives grateful briefs on the techniques of Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Peter Gennaro. The single most interesting piece of information she imparts concerns Gennaro's contributions to West Side Story; she reports that he staged the Sharks' mambo moves in that landmark musical and stresses that he never received from Robbins the credit that he deserved. (Curiously, Rivera says nothing about Gower Champion, who directed and choreographed her as Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, her first starring role.)

The always hard-working Rivera is supported to little avail by an equally hard-working ensemble, of which the preening Richard Amaro is the most prominent. Loy Arcenas has contributed a variety-hour set featuring backdrops that often resemble formica-topped kitchen counters. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer designed the busy lighting. Alan Johnston reproduced the Robbins choreography, while Tony Stevens reproduced the Fosse choreography -- well enough in both instances, although the signature "All That Jazz" arm undulations have been mislaid. Toni-Leslie James has given Rivera only one costume, which is accessorized throughout the show. Scott Lehrer saw to the sound.

About 30 years ago, when Bob Fosse suffered a massive heart attack and the opening of Chicago had to be postponed, Fred Ebb plotted for Rivera an act that opened at the now long-defunct Grand Finale. Ebb was someone who could tailor special material to land with the force of a Muhammad Ali punch, and the act was a sensational display of everything Rivera does best. That's the kind of showcase she deserves -- the kind that George C. Wolfe and John Lahr shaped for Elaine Stritch two years ago. But it's not what she gets in this disappointing Chorus Line variation.

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