At long last, Broadway's living legend makes her Café Carlyle debut.
In case you were silently wondering, Chita Rivera lets you know exactly what her Café Carlyle debut is going to be about in her first song, "I Won't Dance." Of course, this turns out to be a big lie: Chita Rivera dances throughout the show and we don't even need to make her. The 83-year-old performer moves her hips and feet as if by second nature. This is even more impressive considering the fact that Rivera canceled an initially scheduled run of shows in January after she sustained an injury over the holidays (fellow hoofer Tommy Tune valiantly stepped in at the last minute). It clearly didn't squash her will to move: "When you move, your body and your spirit get to know each other," she observes.
The two-time Tony Award winner has had a storied career on Broadway, starting as a dancer in the original Broadway run of Guys and Dolls and still going strong as of her starring role in last season's The Visit. Rivera recounted much of her half century in showbiz during her 2005 autobiographical revue: Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life. Eleven years later, Rivera's still got it, delighting us with her greatest hits from West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, and Chicago.
Granted, her vocal delivery is often breathless and rushed. Rivera compensates by completely committing to the objective of each song: She paints a vivid picture of a romantic tryst in Michael Leonard and Russell George's "Not Exactly Paris." Her rollicking interpretation of "Chief Cook and Bottle Washer" from The Rink reminds us of exactly why she won the Tony for her portrayal of Anna in 1984: She acts the hell out of it.
Truly, when it comes to performing numbers from her stage career, Rivera's voice magically fills out (perhaps this is the dancer's muscle memory). Her medley of "A Boy Like That" and "America" from West Side Story is thrilling. She also delivers a moving version of "Where Am I Going?" from Sweet Charity (she led the national tour). Her rousing rendition of Jacques Brel's "Carousel" is a highlight of the evening. Despite a relentless accelerando, she grabs hold of every syllable so that the lyrics are perfectly clear in the back of the room.
The second half of the show is dominated by the work of John Kander and Fred Ebb, with whom Rivera has originated four Broadway musicals. She starts with two numbers from their most recent collaboration, The Visit: the haunting "Winter" and "Love and Love Alone." Rivera's subtly insistent rendition of the latter feels right at home in a candlelit cabaret like Café Carlyle, making us want to reach for a glass of red wine and a cigarette. She seals this moment with a kiss to her costar, the late Roger Rees.
Rivera sings both parts to "Nowadays" from Chicago, affecting a baby Katharine Hepburn voice for Gwen Verdon. She delivers the line, "In fifty years or so, it's gonna change, you know" with a slight chuckle, acknowledging just how much things have changed over the course of her career, even as she remains timeless: "I've been living as a 35-year-old woman all these years," she exclaims. This genuine icon of Broadway may never reach middle age, and that is quite lucky for us because it means more opportunities to see her sing and dance. Don't miss this one.