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The Dancers LIfe - Chita Rivera's memoir set to music - High kicking her way through Broadway history

By Michelle Noyes

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With just a flick of the wrist, a tilt of the pelvis, and a turn of the head, Chita Rivera commands the stage in a manner that belies her seventy two years. As she gracefully snakes her way across the floor, scattering bits of theater history and personal wisdom In between high kicks, Chita proves she still has the talent that made the young Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero a star.

Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, now playing at San Diego's Old Globe Theater, chronicles Chita's rise to fame, revisiting her classic (and some not so classic) performances. Her name is now synonymous with Broadway's Golden Age, but Chita first took the stage at age seventeen as a mere chorus girl. Her breakthrough came in 1957 in the role of Anita in West Side Story. Consequently she starred in such plays as Bye Bye Birdie, Kiss Me Kate, Sweet Charity, Chicago, The Rink, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Most recently, she shared the stage with Antonio Bandares in the Broadway revival of Nine.

Interspersed among these legendary song and dance numbers, Chita reminiscences about her great teachers, choreographers, costars, and loves. For her, dancing is more than a career, it is a philosophy of life. Still Chita is at her best when she is actually dancing rather than just talking about it. As her one time costar Shirley MacLaine once proclaimed, "You can't lie when you dance. It's so direct. You do what is in you. You can't dance out of the side of your mouth." While Chita has the ability to make her monologues seem intimate, even when confessed to a sold out theater, these reflections are frequently cliched and sometimes superficial. These cliches are quickly forgiven, however, when Chita opens her mouth to sing. Her rendition of "Sometime" from West Side Story is positively spine-tingling. Remarkably, or perhaps not so remarkably given her plethora of awards and honors, she maintains her charismatic energy through the end of the performance when she belts out Chicago's "All that Jazz."

When Chita Rivera was a young gypsy, she dreamed of having a crossover, a solo line in an ensemble number. In Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, she is given an entire autobiographical play to perform, almost single-handedly. While Chita is the raison d'e'tre of the show, she is backed up by a talented ensemble. If anything, these lithe, energetic young dancers were underused, with barely any crossovers of their own. But this night was about Chita, and at the end of the night, her sensual tangos and powerful ballads brought the full house to its feet, enraptured by this particular dancer's life.

"Chita Rivera is our strongest link to the Golden Age of the American Musical. She worked with all the great choreographers and composers and was present at the creation of such seminal masterpieces as The Dance at the Gym from West Side Story when the talent in the room was a veritable Mount Rushmore of the American theatre: Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins, Laurents and Prince," said Terrence McNally. "I hope our show reminds audiences of what that level of theatre was like and what it still can be if the talent, the technique and the passion are there. Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life looks back in order to look forward."

An accomplished and versatile actress/singer/dancer, Chita Rivera has won two Tony Awards (Kiss of the Spider Woman; The Rink) and received six additional Tony nominations. She recently starred on Broadway in the revival of the musical Nine with Antonio Banderas.

In December, 2002 she received the coveted Kennedy Center Honor in Washington, DC. Ms. Rivera created the role of Velma Kelly in the original Broadway production of Chicago opposite Gwen Verdon (1975) and appears in the film version. Chita starred in the London, Las Vegas and Toronto productions of Chicago-The Musical. Her recent starring roles include the new Kander/Ebb/McNally musical The Visit (Goodman Theatre) and The House of Bernarda Alba (Mark Taper Forum). Chita trained as a ballerina (age 11) before receiving a scholarship to the American School of Ballet by the legendary George Balanchine. Her first appearance (age 17) was in the chorus of Call Me Madam. Her electric performance as Anita in the Broadway premiere of West Side Story (1957) brought her stardom, which she repeated in London. Her career is highlighted by starring roles in Bye Bye Birdie, Jerry's Girls; (original Broadway casts) Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, Seventh Heaven, and Mr. Wonderful. On tour: Born Yesterday, The Rose Tattoo, Call Me Madam, Threepenny Opera, Sweet Charity, Kiss Me Kate, Zorba, and Can-Can with The Rockettes. Chita played Nicky in the film version of Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine. Her most treasured production is her daughter, singer/dancer/choreographer, Lisa Mordente.

Playwright Terrance McNally

Terrence McNally was last represented on Broadway as the book writer for the musical The Full Monty (which had its world premiere at The Old Globe in 2000), for which he received a Tony Award nomination; and off-Broadway as the book writer for the musical, A Man of No Importance (music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens). He won his fourth Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Ragtime (music and lyrics by Flaherty and Ahrens). McNally won the Tony in 1996 for his play Master Class, in which Zoe Caldwell created the role of Maria Callas; the 1995 Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Play as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play for Love! Valour! Compassion!; and the 1993 Tony for his book of the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman (music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb). His other plays include Corpus Christi; A Perfect Ganesh; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; The Lisbon Traviata; and It's Only a Play, all of which began at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Earlier stage works include Bad Habits, The Ritz, Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, Next and the book for the musical The Rink (music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb). For the Central Park opera trilogy presented at the New York City Opera in the fall of 1999 he wrote the libretto for The Food of Love, with music by Robert Beaser. In October, the San Francisco Opera presented Dead Man Walking with McNally's libretto and music by Jake Heggie. He recently wrote the book for The Visit with score by Kander and Ebb. McNally has written a number of TV scripts, including "Andre's Mother" for which he won an Emmy Award. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, a Lucille Lortel Award, a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has been a member of the Dramatists Guild since 1970.

Choreographer & Director Graciela Daniele

Graciela Daniele most recently directed and choreographed the premiere of the musical, Dessa Rose (music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) for Lincoln Center Theater. She began her career on Broadway as a performer in such musicals as What Makes Sammy Run? (debut, 1964); Here's Where I Belong; Promises, Promises; Coco; Follies; and Chicago. She staged the musical numbers for Christopher Durang's A History of the American Film and choreographed such musicals as The Most Happy Fella (1979 revival), The Pirates of Penzance, Zorba (1983 revival), The Rink, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Goodbye Girl and Ragtime. Graciela directed and choreographed Dangerous Games (which she also conceived and wrote the book for), Once on this Island, Chronicle of a Death Foretold (also conceived and wrote the book), Annie Get Your Gun (starring Bernadette Peters), and Marie Christine. She was Movement Consultant on Elaine Stritch At Liberty and Creative Consultant on Barbara Cook's Broadway. Ms. Daniele has been nominated for 10 Tony Awards for choreography, direction and book.

 

 

 

 

 

Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life is playing at San Diego's Old Globe Theater through October 23 before moving to Broadway. Directed by Graciela Daniele, it features new songs by Ragtime's Lynn Ahrens and is based on the book by Terrence McNally. For more information, visit http://www.oldglobe.org.

 

Published on Dec 31, 1969

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