Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 14, 2005
You had to be there.
That's the one indisputable and defining thing about theatre: if you didn't see it, then you'll never see it. It's with this nod toward utter impermanence that authentic Broadway legend Chita Rivera concludes her electrifying new show—which explains why, among other things, you'll never really understand why Chita Rivera is legendary unless you've had the chance to see her do what she does in a dark room in front of a thousand strangers night after night after night, just as she's done for her entire, astonishingly long professional life. In Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, we get taken to some pretty amazing "there"s: the "Dance at the Gym" in West Side Story; the opening number of The Rink and the title song of Kiss of the Spider Woman (the two shows that won Rivera her Tony Awards); on tour with Call Me Madam and Guys and Dolls; the introduction of "All That Jazz" in Chicago.
For this reason alone, Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life is pure gold. In the first act, she re-creates her first triumph, as Anita in West Side Story, performing Leonard Bernstein's glorious "Mambo" to choreography by—she reveals, for the first time publicly—Peter Gennaro. It's spectacular. Later, she recalls her first meeting with Gwen Verdon (and does a priceless Verdon imitation to boot), to whom she pays fitting and lovely tribute in "Nowadays," the song they introduced in Chicago.
In the second act, she delivers the show-stopper to end all show-stoppers, a medley of numbers she introduced from several of her shows (including three Kander & Ebb gems, "Class," "Chief Cook and Bottle Washer," and "Where You Are") framed by a nifty new song by Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty. This comes right after a brilliant segment called "The Choreographers," in which Rivera provides what amounts to a master class on American musical theatre dance, explaining with splendid clarity the ideas and characteristics of the work of Jack Cole, Gennaro, Jerome Robbins, and Bob Fosse, while the show's dancers illustrate them in silhouette behind a scrim and she demonstrates some of the finer points of each up close and personal. It's a breathtaking piece, magnificently executed by Rivera and her librettist Terrence McNally and director/choreographer Graciele Daniele: I don't think I've ever learned so much about these four artists in 30+ years of theatregoing as I did in the seven or eight minutes of this extraordinary tribute.
There's plenty more, of course, and it's true that some of it is not so exciting or impressive. Rivera's journey through her life is at once self-effacing and archetypal, tracing the arc of the Broadway "gypsy" life (i.e., the dancers who perform in the choruses of one musical after another, building a career, usually anonymously) in anecdotes, snippets of songs and dances, and reminiscences. There's a little bit of gossip: some famous names are bandied about (Antonio Banderas, Liza Minnelli, Elaine Stritch); some personal milestones are noted (the birth of her daughter Lisa, her embarrassment when she asked one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a drink at a White House reception). And there's more than a little shoptalk, which is clearly what she prefers trading in: sure, she got a big break and became a star, but it's evident that Rivera is still a gypsy at heart, and the sequences about ballet class and auditions, for example, feel genuine. The show's title is deliberate: this is not A dancer's life but THE dancer's life. And the passion at the core of that life turns out to be at once unyielding and ineffable; it's the thing that makes a legend do a show as rigorous as this one eight times a week when she's 70-something years old. She's got to be there until she has to stop.
Kudos to lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer and set designer Loy Arcenas, who have created a fittingly glamorous and abstract environment for the show; and to the small but high-powered corps of dancers who support Rivera brilliantly throughout the show (Richard Amaro, Cleve Asbury, Lloyd Culbreath, Malinda Farrington, Edgard Gallardo, Deidre Goodwin, Madeleine Kelly, Richard Montoya, Liana Ortiz, Lainie Sakakura, Alex Sanchez, and Allyson Tucker).
The finale trumps everything that comes before: Rivera performs "All That Jazz," with the original Fosse choreography meticulously re-created by Tony Stevens and danced to perfection by the ensemble. We're talking unforgettable; we're talking indelible; we're talking goosebumps. I didn't get to be there the first time this particular lightning struck on Broadway, back in 1975. Boy, am I grateful to be there now.