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  • Chita Rivera and The Dancer's Life company in a recreation of the gym sequence from West Side Story. The Jerome Robbins choreography is reproduced by Alan Johnson.

    Those piercing eyes! That radiant smile! The fiery way she flips her dress and tosses her hair. And, oh, yeah, those legs!!! Could that describe anyone other than the one, the only, the seemingly indestructible Chita Rivera?

    Have you met any theaterlover in the last two weeks who hasn't seen Broadway's legendary gypsy in her autobiographical musical revue Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life at least twice - and who's not planning to go back a third and forth time?

    If not, you're not getting around much anymore. [One reason they keep going back is that they think CR might reveal more juicy gossip about her youthful, passionate flings!]

    CR:TDL is a "living memoir" told by the survivor herself. There's plenty to celebrate with the seemingly unstoppable - amazing considering those pins and the fact that next month she turns 73 - Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero.

    Directed and choreographed by multiple Tony and Drama Desk winner Graciela Daniele, the show has a book by Tony, Drama Desk and Pulitzer Prize-winning Terrence McNally, with songs from a long list of musicals Rivera was featured or starred in. There are also two new songs by Tony and Drama Desk-winning composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, including the poignant "A Woman the World Has Never Seen." Music direction and the superb orchestra arrangements are by Mark Hummel.

    In addition to Daniele's staging, two respected choreographers in their own right, Tony Stevens, a veteran CR dancer who's choreographed for her, and Alan Johnson recreate, respectively, the Jerome Robbins/Peter Gennaro and Bob Fosse choreography.

    In CR:TDL, it's not just La Conchita onstage alone. She benefits greatly from a superb lineup of nine seasoned dancers, several veteran CR dancers: Richard Amaro [Jerome Robbins' Broadway], Lloyd Culbreath, Edgar Gallardo, Deidre Goodwin [a Chicago Velma], Malinda Farrington, Richard Montoya, Lainie Sakakura, Alex Sanchez and Allison Tucker. Some of the backstory is responsible for the two-hour revue starting out the gate a bit slow, but the show ignites with the recreation of Gennaro's choreography of WSS's Jets/Sharks' gym dance [which Rivera reports he was never given credit for], and really fires up with Daniele's Act Two tango sequence, which Rivera uses to salute the choreographers who've influenced her.

    Rivera's reminences of her long-time idol, mentor and eventual co-star Gwen Verdon are particularly poignant - and quite funny. CR's 11:00 "duet" with the ghost of Verdon is the stuff of theater business magic.

    Needless to say, Rivera and Daniele's recreations of numbers from many of her shows, not to mention a song from 1955's Shoestring Revue, "Garbage" by Sheldon Harnick, which Bea Arthur did as a torch singer and in which Rivera danced, are showstoppers.

    The audiences for CR:TDL provide a virtual lovefest for the Broadway legend and eight-time Tony-nominee [winner of two] and Rivera radiates the love right back.

    Like that TV battery bunny, Rivera's going, going, going - and has no plans to do anything but keep going. Rivera's been entertaining with pizzazz and panache for five decades, a milestone she officially celebrated in May. That's an amazing track record in fickle show business.

    If you think she's going to retire and rest those gorgeous gams when the run of TDL ends, think ago. Martin Richards, one of the show's lead producers, and Rivera have something up their sleeve that, says Richards, "will rock the socks off everyone!" - a musical with a distinctive Latin beat.

    It's hard to find anyone onstage in musical theater who's not been influenced by her or who doesn't love her for her heart, which is as big, if not bigger than her talent.

    Rivera's career trajectory "has been a journey from a dream to dancing for those out there somewhere in the dark." It's been, as she sings in the show, "a lovely ride," a wonderful, rewarding adventure.

    "With each job," she explains, "I feel as if I'm being pushed into a new area with these great playwrights and creative teams who trust me and want to direct me and take me further and further down this path of the theatrical unknown."

    Rivera did it the old-fashioned way; paying her dues, winning her stripes and Tonys and Drama Desks the hard way. She's also a pioneer, one of the very first Hispanic women to break into theater stardom.

    Conchita was born, not in Puerto Rico, but on Flagler Place in N.W. Washington, D.C., the daughter of Pedro Julio Figueroa, who played saxophone and clarinet in the U.S. Navy Band, and Katherine Anderson. Her dad died when CR was seven and her mom was forced to go to work [as a secretary at the Pentagon] to support the family.

    "We were a large family [two brothers and her two sisters]," says Rivera, "with never a dull moment, especially at meal times. I was a rambunctious tomboy, but I loved to dance. Once I was actually dancing on our kitchen table and the table broke In an attempt to tone me down, Mom enrolled me in ballet school. I was eleven. It worked. I had the most dedicated, most strict teacher, Miss Jones, who rid me of all my attitude and really drove me to correct posture at the bar."

    When an instructor from New York's American School of Ballet - run by the esteemed George Ballachine - visited, Rivera and another student were chosen to audition for a scholarship.

    "I was scared out of my wits," she remembers. "Miss Jones calmed me down. She told me, ëConchita, don't worry about the long bodies and blond ponytails lined up next to you, just be who you are!'"

    She was and won a scholarship. At ABT, her teachers included Maria Tallchief and Edward Villella.

    It was the dance world's loss and show biz's gain when the 17-year-old Rivera accompanied a friend to the auditions for the tour of Call Me Madam and she ended up landing the part. Elaine Stritch was the star, and teen chorus member del Rivero was quite scared of her. "She's a bit scary, don't you think?" Rivera asks in the show and gets a huge laugh.

    In Rivera's eyes, she was a ballerina, and becoming a gypsy was a step down. As a ballerina, she danced to be seen. She quickly found out that as an ensemble dancer she was mainly there to do crossovers as they changed the scenery.

    As intimidated as she was of Stritch, she admired her onstage style - greatly impressed that she was "all legs." Rivera recalls, "I stood stary-eyed in the wings, watching every move Elaine made and I learned from her."

    In the mid-50s, it was suggested her name was too long to fit into "lights" on a theatre marquee, and Chita Rivera was born. She made her Broadway debut in Cole Porter's Can-Can, [a show she later did internationally with the Radio City Rockettes], followed quickly by the Victor Young/Stella Unger musical adaptation of Seventh Heaven.

    Chita Rivera on the red carpet [daughter Lisa is in foreground];
    with Bebe Neuwirth and Ben Vereen; Barbara Cook dueting with
    Harvey Evans; ageless Liliane Montevecchi and Tommy Tune.

    [Photos: ELLIS NASSOUR]

    She began her rise out of the chorus in 1957 with Mr. Wonderful, [music and lyrics by Jerry Bock/Larry Holofcener/George Weiss and a book co-authored by Joseph Stein] headling Sammy Davis Jr., "who," says Rivera, "was the most talented performer I'd ever seen. I fell in love with him."

    Literally. In CR:TDL, she makes it clear that though they had an affair, the love was very one-sided. After all, as she puts it quite succinctly, "I was a gyspy. He was a star."

    After six terrible auditions for Hal Prince's production of Bernstein/Sondheim/Laurents' 1957 West Side Story, Bernstein, recognizing something in her that she didn't know she had, came to the rescue. After correcting her on the pronunciation of his name, he sat at the piano cajoling and pushing until she got what the character Anita was experiencing. "I finally got it, and the job," she says joyously.

    She talks about the creative process and how the gypsies bonded as a family [one of the things she loves so much about theater]. Her electric performance started her on the road to stardom. Amazingly, she was not recognized by the Tony nominating committee, an egregious oversight if ever there was one.

    WSS led to a serious romance with 5'6" dynamo and dancer extraordinaire Tony Mordente, who played Jet gang member A-Rab. They were married in December 1957, about two months into the run.

    Rivera's critical acclaim equaled that of stars Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence, so much so that Prince delayed the WSS West End opening until Rivera gave birth to her daughter, Lisa, and was back in shape.

    Mordente, who went on to assist Gower Champion on Birdie, choreograph and direct, was Italian. Though madly in love - "madly" being the optimum word, two combustible temperaments led to a rocky, tempestuous union, especially, says Rivera, because of his insane jealously.

    "If I said ëHello' to a cab driver," laughs Rivera, "he wanted to know how I knew him. I would say, ëI just said Hello!' He'd reply, ëAnd as we were getting out, he said Goodbye.' And that's the way it was." The couple divorced in 1965, with Rivera citing that "as one of the saddest events in my life."

    But, explains CR, like the late Fred Ebb wrote [in a lyric], "the world goes 'round and 'round. We moved on. Life went on. People change and now we are extraordinarly close friends. Tony is responsible for the very best production of my life, our daughter Lisa.

    [Mordente, who's evidently cultivated a different persona, was not only a beaming-with-pride special opening night guest of Rivera, but was also Lisa's date. And he and CR engaged in some oh-the-times-we've had laughs.]

    Birdie, was the first time she received billing above the title, starring as Rosie opposite Dick Van Dyke, whom she says was a joy to work with. Three years later, Rivera was hand-picked by Gennaro to appear opposite Herschel Bernardi and Nancy Dussault in Bajour, where as Anyanka she was featured doing some spectacular dancing alongside "this brilliant kid Michael Bennett," who was just beginning to branch out into choreography.

    Most know about her theater credits, but - "and for good reason," laughs Rivera - not about her 1973 season with Van Dyke and Hope Lange on The New Dick Van Dyke Show. "I was Dick's neighbor," recollects Rivera. "It was a great opportunity, but I didn't have a lot to do. On one show I was to come in loaded with groceries and find Dick all doped up after being at the dentist. I was to try to rouse him. My lines were, 'Dick. Dick? Dick!' I knew I had to make the most of it, so I really rehearsed ways to have the most impact. 'Dick!! Dick?? DICK!' We did it and I immediately felt it was time to throw in the towel. Done in by three Dicks, I headed back to New York."

    In 1975, as jealous jail-house rival Velma Kelly, Rivera and Verdon, as the infamous Roxie Hart, created the razzle-dazzle for Fosse and Kander & Ebb's Chicago. [She has a cameo in the Oscar-winning film adaptation, produced by the original Chicago's capitalizer [a casting director then, he raised all the production money; but because Verdon didn't like seeing more than two producer's names above the title - oh, those where the days! - he was denied credit], Martin Richards, a lead producer of CR:TDL.]

    She stumbled through a very short-lived 1981 Birdie sequel. "Donald O'Connor and I tried valiantly to bring him back," she sighs, "but hard as we tried, we couldn't do it!".

    She was back on Broadway as the Queen in Elmer Bernstein/Don Black's 1983 Merlin, which co-starred Nathan Lane and, lackluster though it was, managed a six-month run mainly due to Doug Henning's magic.

    Among many career highlights, in 1984, she received acclaim and a Tony playing Liza Minelli's free-spirited mom, Anna, in Kander and Ebb's The Rink, which through its trials and tribulations managed six months on Broadway. A year and a half later, she was co-headling with Dorothy Loudon and Leslie Uggams in Herman's Jerry's Girls.

    Chita Rivera has had star billing on Broadway, London, Toronto, Tokyo and Vegas. She's taken home awards by the dozens, but she's considered more than a theatrical icon.

    In addition to her many awards and honors, she became a "national treasure" as a recipient of a 2002 Kennedy Center Honor. More recently, she's been featured in a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, Our Journey/Our Stories: Portraits of Latino Achievement, showcasing the historical and cultural achievements of Hispanics in America.

    When many stars her age are sitting home collecting their hard-earned pensions or doing those musical theater cruises to Alaska or Antarctica, Rivera, in more than top form, is wowing them on Broadway, dancing up a storm with an ensemble of the best dancers to be found anywhere.

    "I've been so fortunate throughout," she says, "to have great leading men - Van Dyke, O'Connor, Brent Carver and Anthony Crivello, John McMartin [Kander and Ebb's The Visit, Chicago's Goodman], Antonio Banderas and to have worked with such giants as Sondheim, Bernstein, Prince, Laurents, Frank Galati [The Visit] and now Graciela."

    She cannot overlook the actors: Kert, Verdon and Jerry Orbach [Chicago], Bennett; or the composers: Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, Herman and Kander and Ebb, with whom she became intimate friends. Nor the choreographers: Robbins, Gennaro [later a brilliant choreographer in his own right, and Robbins' WSS assistant], Jack Cole, Fosse, Ann Reinking [The Visit] and Rob Marshall [co-choreographer, Spider Woman].

    Rivera says her style, "is a little bit of Jerry [Robbins]'s athletic grace, Peter [Gennaro]'s Latin fire and Bob [Fosse]'s minimalism and erotic movements." She credits her incredible footwork to Gennaro, who she claims had the fastest feet in the business.

    "I'm a little of each of those people," Rivera adds. "I'm still learning! I'm, first and foremost, a dancer. I've grown into many other things with the help of these geniuses. God truly blessed me! He said, ëOkay, I'll let you go there.' And everyday, I'm still learning."

    In CR:TDL, the star pays a special tribute to Cole, who started as a modern dancer with Ruth St. Denis and who's considered the father of jazz dance technique. "Jack had a background in East Indian dancing and even the Lindy hop," notes Rivera. "He blended these elements to create a distinctive style that brought him great acclaim not only onstage but also in big screen musicals."


    Rivera is one of the few artists who worked for Robbins who doesn't remember him as an arrogant, mean taskmaster. "He was very handsome," she recalls, "I idolized him. He was my ëBig Daddy' and I would do anything for him."

    Of Fosse, she says, "He had an incredible sense of humor, but there was this other side: very dark and on the edge."

    Her 50-year career in theater, Rivera says, "has been a wonderful and rewarding adventure. With each job, I feel as if I'm being pushed into a new area with these great composers, choreographers, directors and playwrights who trust me and want to direct me and take me further and further down this path of theatrical adventure."

    She is quick to point out that's she's always been realistic about her career, "I was never a dreamer. There's nothing easy about show business. It's so seldom that the good guy wins." She, of course, is one of the exceptions.

    For Martin Richards and Marty Bell, among the lead producers, of the show, getting this show up and to Broadway has been a labor of love. Both have, for many years, been dazzled by La Conchita's talent.

    "When I worked with Chita on Spider Woman," explains Bell, " she wowed the heck out of me. She didn't miss a show in three years. In every way, she represented a kind of elegance and commitment we don't often see backstage."
    About two years ago, he, McNally and Daniele were brainstorming about doing a show on the Broadway they grew up with. "It was a time we really missed," says Bell.
    Richards notes that when he takes on a show, he wants it to have the critieria of a South Pacific, "something that can be classy and classic."
    He and Bell agreed Rivera was the last remaining symbol of Broadway's golden era musicals who could perform.
    "So our goal," states Bell, "is to not only showcase an actress and dancer we've worked with and loved, but also to recapture that time. To show what we were so in love with, and maybe to inspire people."
    Bell and Richards laughed that Rivera is "simply indefatigable." "She really does keep going and going and going," says Richards. "Three times during the show," points out Bell, "a chair is brought onstage on so Chita get off her feet for a few moments. We had to force her to use it!"
    Richards has been devoted to CR since before the original Chicago.

    Impressed with her talent during early rehearsals, when Fosse got sick and the production was delayed, he helped finance Rivera's upper East Side nightclub act [her Feinstein's engagement was evidently not her first nitery appearance]. She opened and you couldn't get in. There were lines around the block." He recalls that she introduced a new song that Kander and Ebb wrote for her, "How Lucky Can You Get?"; and sang some of the songs from the forthcoming Chicago.

    "For so many years," he explains, stressing "years," "I talked with Chita about doing the story of her life, so it's no surprise I'm one of the producers. It's been exciting observing her as the show has taken form. I'm thrilled it's finally happening!"

    Book writer McNally, who wrote the Spider Woman book, admits he didn't have a lot of research to do: "We'd talk, and I'd go write." He says that the one thing that came as a surprise was Rivera's affair with Davis.

    Daniele says she was always "dumbstruck" when she saw Rivera dance. "My eyes are akways glued to Chita. Long ago, I fell in love instantly with that power ó that energy. She's a force of nature!"

    Is there anything the sensational Rivera hasn't done? Nope. Rivera claims her longevity is all due to "certainly good genes, but most of all to the discipline instilled in me as a dancer. Dancers are obedient," she laughs. "We do what we're told -- generally without opening our mouths. But, working with every choreographer, I've always been able, been encouraged, to say what I feel. That's the kind of professionals they are."

    One attribute Rivera leaves out is her absolute refusal to think negatively in the face of crisis. That got her through her worst crisis.In many ways, the fact that Rivera is working and dancing after the horrendous injuries in a 1986 automobile accident, is a miracle. Her left leg was crushed. The prognosis was totally negative, but not to Rivera. She was determined she'd dance again.

    "When I saw the x-rays," she says, "I realized I had work to do; but dancers don't know anything else. Thank God for the discipline. Pity wasn't a word in my vocabulary. I've never been one who does anything half-way."

    Incredibly, she was released three weeks later, albeit with 16 screws in her leg. "From day one," Rivera notes, "I obeyed, did exactly what I was told. It was fascinating because I could feel my leg mending." Eleven months later, she had the type of mobility which made her realize she would still have a career. "I wasn't happy with my dancing, but I was on my feet!"

    Rivera says she is happy the accident didn't happen when she was younger, as she may not have been as strong.

    She did a couple of "shakedown" engagements before signing on for the 1988 Can Can tour. "How crazy is that?" she screams. "Of all the shows! But I didn't miss a kick!"

    When Rivera took the stage in Spider Woman, it was mindboggling that she was able to do what she did.

    Rivera wears the badge of gypsy with pride. Regarding dance, she maintains that "there is a dance in every movement we make. When you walk onstage, when you move about the scenery - you can make it all appear as dancing. It can all flow. And, when it's not so obvious, that's when you have the real magic."

    She says it's hard work maintaining a career, "but I don't understand it if it isn't hard work. Every once in a while, I think, 'You could be doing something much easier!' But would I be happy? No! This is the path that's been chosen for me, and I'm going to stay on it as long as I can, as long I should.

    "My philosophy," continues Rivera, "is: If it works, let's do it. People say, 'Aren't you sorry you didn't do the movie of this, or the movie of that?' No!" There are a couple of beats of silence, then she adds, "Well, there was Rita Moreno playing Anita in the film of West Side Story. And her winning an Oscar!"

    But, all in all, says Chita Rivera, "Not a day goes by that I don't pinch myself and say thanks for my blessings. I'm the luckiest woman in the world!"


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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