Onstage: Been There, Done That

Chita Rivera's 'life' on the Broadway stage is full of great moments

Dec 27, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Paul Kolnik

Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life re-creates iconic scenes from the dancer's legendary career, including the "Dance at the Gym" from West Side Story.

It's really too bad that dance legend Chita Rivera's new show is launching its national tour here in Cincinnati during the holiday season, although I suspect the producers sought (and found) a soft landing before they begin an arduous trek to more than 20 cities. Based on the Dec. 20 performance of Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life, I'm going to guess that this will not be a big seller for Broadway Across America at the Aronoff Center downtown. There were lots of empty seats, even in the main section.

That's not because catching a Broadway legend isn't worth it. It's mostly because her show is a last-minute fill-in during the holidays for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a show with a more familiar title that decided to postpone its stop here. Those who have decided to skip Rivera's show are not only missing an extremely entertaining evening, they're bypassing a chance to see living history.

Despite the fact that Rivera's been onstage for more than 50 years, she is still a vibrant performer. A Dancer's Life is tailored to show off what she's still capable of doing, and that's considerable for someone who admits onstage that, following a car accident in 1986, she has 16 metal screws in her leg. It doesn't hold her back: With a supporting cast of eight Broadway-caliber dancers, Rivera participates in the re-creation of many of her signature dance routines. Tony Award winning choreographer Graciela Daniele has re-assembled many of these numbers, breathing newfound life into them.

Of course, Rivera can't do some of the fiery choreography she danced in 1957 when she created the role of Anita at the age of 23 in the original Broadway production of West Side Story. But she does enough to remind us of the spark she brought to the stage a half-century ago.

She describes auditioning for Leonard Bernstein, sings two intentionally wobbly stabs at "A Boy Like That," turns her back and then whips forward with spitting anger as she brings that legendary song back to life. That's followed by the spirited "America" and "Dance at the Gym," one of the most gloriously vital dance numbers in American musical theater history. The heavy lifting is done by the ensemble, but Rivera does enough that you can feel you've seen her in some of her signature works.

And she has many of those. In addition to West Side Story, Rivera was in 607 performances of Bye Bye Birdie in 1960-1961. She's been nominated for a Tony Award nine times and won twice — for The Rink in 1984 and Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1992. She originated the role of Velma Kelly in a third Kander and Ebb show, Chicago, playing opposite another legend, Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart, in 1975. All those shows are recalled in A Dancer's Life.

Rivera weaves her story with a narrative written by another Tony Award winner, playwright Terrence McNally. A nice frame is created, starting with her arrival at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2002 and returning to that moment at the show's conclusion. Overall, the script is not McNally's greatest work, too often resorting to clichéd reminiscence. But it's serviceable in giving us a good sense of the arc of Rivera's career.

In a similarly disappointing vein, original tunes by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (who created Ragtime and Once on This Island) written for this production feel very generic when compared to the iconic pieces that made Rivera's reputation. When she slides from "A Woman the World Has Never Seen," one of the team's bland tunes, into the comic "Class" from Chicago, the new material pales by comparison.

The show's strongest segment is a retrospective of the many choreographers she has worked with over the years, from George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins to Jack Cole and Peter Gennaro and Bob Fosse. As she describes each of these men and their styles, the dance ensemble parades behind her in silhouette, demonstrating the signature moves that identified their work. It's a vast improvement over the tepid segment about the men in her life, which leaves us wanting more; her onstage life seems a lot more passionate than the affairs she alludes to, despite liaisons with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra.

A Dancer's Life is full of great visuals: The stage is beautifully lit, and occasional simple scenic elements conjure the sets of iconic shows — hanging streamers in the gym in West Side Story, the metallic curtain she and Gwen Verdon danced before in Chicago. (In a lovely tribute to Verdon, Rivera sings "Nowadays" with a second empty spotlight next to her. "No one can replace your co-stars," she tells us.)

She talks about two moments in her career that demonstrate her progress. At an early point, a stage manager tells her, "You're on." Despite feigned confidence, her internal reaction is, "Oh, shit." Years later, with the confidence of a veteran, she hears that instruction again, and her response is, "Good."

That's what I felt watching her. She is definitely "on." Grade: A-

CHITA RIVERA: A DANCER'S LIFE, presented by Broadway Across America, continues through Dec. 31.