Saturday, February 17, 2007

Chita Rivera, A Dancer's Life

Chita Rivera lights up stage at the Palace

On September 26, 1957, ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ opened at the Winter Garden Theater in New York. I saw the show on September 27. I went into the theatre not having read the rave reviews in the paper that AM. I was completely blown away. The Arthur Laurents, (book) Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) conceived show was everything a Broadway musical should be. It told a modern version of ‘ROMEO AND JULIET,’ featuring the conflict between Puerto Ricans and “white” Americans. The music and lyrics were exciting. The cast superb. The person who totally enthralled me was Chita Rivera, playing the fiery and lusty Anita.

The dancer, singer, actress is presently telling her life story in ‘CHITA RIVERA, THE DANCER’S LIFE’ at the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square. And it is a story worth telling.

Some interesting facts roll out in the production. Her first professional stage appearance was in Akron as a dancer in ‘CALL ME MADAM.’ Her first starring role was in ‘BYE BYE BIRDIE.’ She has twice appeared in major shows with Liza Minnelli (‘CHICAGO’ and ‘THE RINK). She has worked with the greatest choreographers in modern theatre including Jack Cole, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Michael Kidd.

The most enticing part of ‘CHITA RIVERA, THE DANCER’S LIFE” is the segment in which she talks about the choreographers and behind her, in silouhette, a line of dancers emulate each of the dance styles of these men.

Rivera, who starred on Broadway in such shows as ‘THE RINK’, ‘SWEET CHARITY’ and ‘CHICAGO,’ still has “it!” She is compelling on stage.

The well-preserved 74-year old can still flash the magical smile, move those sensual hips and kick moderately high though she needs some sit-down breaks. What is most interesting is that by all rules of medicine she should not even be on that stage.

In 1986 she was hit by a car. Her leg was shattered, requiring 16 screws to repair the damage. She was told she might not ever walk again. Her guts and determination transformed themselves into a will power that has allowed her not only to walk, but to dance for almost an hour-and-a-half in her present show.

Capsule judgment: If you love musical theatre, if you want to see the consummate musical theatre performer in what is maybe her final appearance in the spotlight, you’ll love ‘CHITA RIVERA, THE DANCER’S LIFE.’