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  • Chita's back and George's got her. Or does she have him - by the neck?

    George's back and we can all rest easy.

    Kander and Ebb're back and the theater is a better place - even if the world of The Visit is a bit dark and with some dirty goings on.

    All is a little train ride away, just across the river from where change is the optimum word.

    The revival of The Visit , the last musical completed by John Kander and Fred Ebb is at the award-winning Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, in their spanking new home. It's reason enough to pay a visit to the D.C. area. The revival doesn't exactly ring with razzle dazzle, except in one big dance number that spins out of a small reference and explodes in its witty simplicity. But K&E, razzle dazzle or gloom and doom, are always worth the visit.

    The Visit is the last in Signature's Celebrating Kander and Ebb fest, and a grand finale it is. The book is by Terrence McNally, with Frank Galati directing and choreography by Ann Reinking - the team behind the original 2001 production at Chicago's Goodman. The Visit runs through June 24, so you should run, too.


    After the Saturday matinee, Chita is still bouncing up and down on the couch in the Green Room, still reeling quite excitedly about the Friday night's Pride performance.

    "It was fabulous," she tells Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS' associate director of development Frank Conway. "It was all doctors, lawyers, all the beautiful people. And they got it! They laughed when they were supposed to laugh and they cried when they were supposed to cry."

    But," says Chita, "I was worried. It's very complex and dark. I wasn't sure they'd get that it was a love story - well, quite a convoluted love story!"

    There was a moment of shock for Chita when Conway told her that he had seen her in Chicago. "The city?" asked Chita. "No, the musical," he replied. "You mean, the original Chicago?" "Yes," he responded. "Darling, how could you? You're not that old!" He was 17. [Now, when I told her I'd seen her in the original Chicago, she didn't bat an extended eye lash!...Gosh, I even saw her in WSS - when I was seven!]

    There's plenty of room for both laughter and tears and some gasps in this production that sometimes borders on the Theatre du Grand-Guignol; and it's plot could certainly qualify it for adaptation for grand opera.

    The musical is based on the Tony-nominated 1958 play of the same name by Friedrich Durrenmatt [adapted by Maurice Valency] which was directed by Peter Brook and set in Gullen, "somewhere in Europe." It starred the Lunts, who were both nominated, at the Lunt-Fontanne, which was rechristened to honor the acclaimed acting duo. There revivals in '73 [co-starring John McMartin and Rachel Roberts; directed by Hal Prince] and Roudabout in '92 [Jane Alexander, Harris Yulin].

    The story, now set in a tiny village in a canton of Switzerland, follows illegitimate billionaire Claire Zachanassian, who was driven from her hometown in disgrace in her late teens, betrayed by young Anton, who refused to admit he was the father of their child and, even worse, allowed her to be branded a prostitute. Decades [and seven husbands] later, in all her splendor, she returns to her poor hometown on a mission to seek revenge.

    "The Visit isn't typical musical comedy fare!" explains Rivera. "It's about justice and love. There are many parallels to Spider Woman. However, it doesn't have huge production numbers. It's quite compelling and there's a wonderful intimacy."

    Opening night, she reports, was the culmination of a wonderful adventure. "A challenge, yes, but an extraordinarily rewarding one. Working with Frank is like working with no one else. I'm a lucky gal, working with Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, Arthur Laurents, but I keep learning. It was that way working with such a kind, warm, spiritual, creative person as Frank. He's so giving, he makes the person playing the smallest part feel as important as the largest part."

    The Kander and Ebb Celebration has been a huge success for Signature. "The past three months have been an amazing time at Signature," says A.D. Eric Schaffer, "thanks to two amazing men - John Kander and Fred Ebb. Together, they created a wonderful body of work for the American theater. In 2001, I was fortunate enough to see The Visit. It was a bold and emotional musical. Then 9/11 happened. The world of The Visit disappeared, but it wasn't forgotten."

    Schaeffer says he believed the show deserved to be seen. He spoke to K&E and when plans for Signature's new theatre came to fruition he knew it was time. "Our production is such a fitting finale to our Kander and Ebb Celebration. We've assembled an amazing array of Broadway talent to bring it to life. Having the opportunity to work with John, Terrence and even the zephyrs of of Fred has been a thrill."

    He goes on to mention their good fortune in having Chita, George, Frank and Ann to help revive The Visit.

    Co-starring are some familiar Broadway faces, including Tony-nominee Mark Jacoby as the town mayor, Jerry Lanning [Mame] as a doctor, DD-winner Bethe B. Austin, Karen Murphy, Brian O'Brien, Hal Robinson and the excellent Jeremy Webb [as the schoolmaster], fresh from his role in LCT and Ahrens and Flaherty's The Glorious Ones.

    There've been changes since Chicago. "There was a lot of work these past weeks," notes Chita. "Of course, the story is the same, but Terrence had more time to give a bit more depth to the relationships and Frank's direction is different."


    The score, reports Chita, is haunting and reinforces the drama of the musical. It has a very European style. "John's melodies are so classically his, and have a beautiful, slowing melody to them. And Fred's lyrics are a perfect continuation of the book. They're clever and, when they have to be, funny. I keep hearing Lotte Lenya and Germany! John and Fred felt there was great passion in such an unusual love story and that music would only strengthen the relationship."

    Kander told a reporter that he looked to the operetta The Merry Widow, a story of a wealthy European woman, for inspiration.

    Then there's the wonderful George Hearn, playing the long ago, but certainly not forgotten love interest of Claire, Anton Schell - a role that's been beefed up considerably since John McMartin portrayed him in the Windy City.

    It's the first time Chita and Hearn, two old friends, have worked together [they did appear in the 1996 Angela Lansbury - A Celebration, the one-night benefit for AMFAR and BC/EFA]. "And we are having a wonderful time," enthuses Chita.

    For two-time Tony winner and Drama Desk winner Hearn's part, he's happy to be back onstage for the first time since stepping into the cast of Wicked as the Wizard off and on from 2004 - 2006 in 1996. "This is such a satisfying show and a wonderful role. Getting to work with Chita is just the icing on the cake."

    For Chita's part, as she told former agent and old friend Richard Self, "Thank God George didn't leave theater to grow tomatoes because he is so brilliant."

    Though the musical was adapted to star Angela Lansbury, who withdrew because of health concerns over her husband Peter Shaw, now deceased, Chita says, "I have always adored Angela. She would have been wonderful, but a friend of mine kept telling me, `Chita, this is going to be your part.' I decided to become involved because of John, Fred and Terrence and, from Day One, I had no fear or trepidation. It was just a huge disappointment that, though many efforts were made, we never made it to Broadway."

    As far as any fear about the darkness of the piece, Rivera says, "But I'd been there, done that with John and Fred and came out quite well - Chicago, The Rink, The Kiss of the Spider Woman. They're not fools, and wouldn't have asked me if they didn't feel I could do it. They're like family, my brothers. Whatever they would ask, I'd be there. I wouldn't blink. I'm happiest being in something that has the audience leaving saying, 'I need a drink. I need to talk about this.' And The Visit was definitely one of those shows."


    Chita adds that she's been handsomely rewarded for her work in their Rink, Spider Woman [with Tonys, DDs] and Chicago [Tony nom]. "Then, to work with Terrence and Frank, well that was just the topping on the dessert."

    She was to work again with the multiple award-winning McNally again. He wrote Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, her 2005 Broadway autobiographical musical revue that has toured extensively. She's also delighted to be working with Reinking again. "We've known each other for years, but believe it or not Chciago was our first time. She did a brilliant job then and she does it again. However, if anyone's expecting a lot of dancing, they won't get it. There are waltzes and tangos, but Ann's created a number for me that's deliciously charming, 'The Peg Leg Tango.' "

    In September, 2001, Chita and company were in the thick of rehearsals in Chicago. "As the terrorist events unfolded in New York," she still vividly recalls, "we couldn't believe what we were seeing and hearing. The horrible thing was that I was so far from my family. Lisa [Mordente], my daughter [from her marriage to choreographer Tony Mordente, who also appeared in the original company of WSS], was in California, but my brothers, sister and friends were in New York. The enormity of the catastrophe was mindboggling, but Frank pulled us back together and it was a gift to be working on a piece as hard as we were. In such a helpless situation, it helped."

    That night, however, depression really hit her. "I was exhausted, sitting in bed, unable to sleep. I thought, 'What the heck am I doing!' Compared to what happened, everything else seems trite. Show business! Anything!' Then a note was slipped under my door. It read, 'What you're doing - being in the theater, entertaining people - is so vital, particularly at times like this when the heart is so sad and people need to get away from the horrors of reality.' It was as if someone knew what was going through my mind!"

    There was a lot to occupy her mind and she sobbed for an hour, then told herself, "Okay, I've got to keep going!"

    Being with Galati when the tragedy happened was a blessing, states Chita. "To be with my family [Kander and Ebb] again, helped. And, each morning, when we'd go into rehearsal, Frank would give a comforting talk." She says portraying Clare was a highlight of her career, so all the more reason she was so devastated when financing feel through to bring The Visit to Broadway. "It became more than work. The whole experience was extremely fulfilling. This production shows it's never too late."


    Long after many other performers of a certain age have disappeared from the scene, Broadway's former Queen of the Gypsies, Chita Rivera, a.k.a. Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, born in Washington, D. C., like the Battery Bunny is still going, going, going. In fact, she's showing no signs of stopping. In spite of some heavy duty obstacles placed in her path, she recently celebrated 50 years in show business.

    What does he attribute Chita's long career and success to? Self knows the answer. "Discipline and hard work," he says. "Chita's in incredible condition. She tells her body, 'We did it yesterday, and we can do it today.''

    Chita notes that she is, first of all, a dancer who's grown into many other things with the great help of the geniuses she's worked with. "God's been wonderful. He said, 'Okay, I'll let you go there.'"

    She laughs, "You know, dancers are obedient. We do what we're told. Generally, from my school, without saying anything. But, having worked with these guys, I can say exactly what I feel. And they want me to. That's the kind of professionals they are."

    In many ways, the fact that Rivera is working and dancing after her horrendous injuries in an automobile accident, is a miracle.

    "Don't think I don't feel like the luckiest woman in the world," Rivera exclaims. "Every single day, I pinch myself and say thank you. There's a lot of hard work involved, but I don't understand it if it isn't hard work. Every once in a while, as when I'm flying backstage for a quick change in three and a half inch heels and the train of a chiffon dress trailing behind me, I think, 'You could be doing something much easier!'"

    But would Chita Rivera be happy? "Not at all! My philosophy 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! Because this is the path that's been chosen for me; and I'm going to stay on it as long as I can and as long I should. I'm in a place I never dreamed I'd be in and I'm still in dancing form."

    However, in The Visit, Chita has only one leg! "The artificial leg looks pretty realistic. In one scene, I actually take it off!" You take off your leg? "Yes, stage magic! What can I say? What's so funny is that the leg that has the eighteen screws in it is not the 'peg' leg! How crazy is that? There's something sick about that!"

    With The Visit, explains Rivera, "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 theatrical adventure."


    Is there anything the sensational Rivera hasn't done? Nope. Through her colorful career as a triple-threat [dancer/singer/actress] she's had star billing on Broadway, London, Toronto and Vegas. In addition to her two Tonys, she has eight nominations.

    Not bad for the daughter of Puerto Rican Pedro Julio Figueroa, who played saxophone and clarinet in the Washington-based U.S. Navy Band. He died when Chita was only seven and her mother Katherine Anderson del Rivero not long after auditioning at age 11 in Washington was forced to go to work as a secretary [at the Pentagon].

    Rivera says she was a "rambunctious tomboy" and to tone her down, her mother enrolled her in ballet school at age 11. When an instructor from New York's American School of Ballet - run by the esteemed George Ballachine - visited, she was chosen to attend on a scholarship.

    "Some early advice from one of my Washington dance instructors was 'Be who you are!'" says Rivera. From that day forward, she has been.

    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.

    In the mid-50s, she made her Broadway debut in Cole Porter's Can-Can, followed quickly by the Victor Young/Stella Unger musical adaptation of Seventh Heaven. She began her rise out of the chorus in 1957 with Mr. Wonderful, starring Sammy Davis Jr., and as Eartha Kitt's understudy in Shinbone Alley.

    Jerome Robbins cast her as Anita in WSS [1957] opposite Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence. Her electric performance to his groundbreaking choreography started her on the road to stardom.

    It also led to a serious romance with Mordente, a Jet gang member. They were married during the run. Rivera's critical acclaim equaled that of stars Kert and Lawrence, so much so that producer Hal Prince delayed the WSS West End opening until Rivera gave birth to her daughter and was back in shape.


    Her first Broadway starring role was as Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie [1960], which co-starred Dick Van Dyke. But it was three years before she was back on Broadway, when choreographer Peter Gennaro hand-picked her to appear opposite Herschel Bernardi and Nancy Dussault in Bajour [1964], 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.

    In 1968, she headed West. By that time Chita was a tried and true New Yorker, and, she says, "Let's face it, L.A. is not New York. It doesn't have New York's pace or energy and I was very much homesick." While out there, however, Rivera did some fancy footwork as Nickie opposite Shirley MacLaine [and McMartin] in the film version of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Field's Sweet Charity [1969], which she had previously toured in as Charity for a year.

    From 1973 to 1974, she appeared with Van Dyke and Hope Lange on The New Dick Van Dyke Show. "I was Dick's neighbor. 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," she continues, "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 Gwen Verdon, as the infamous Roxie Hart, created the razzle-dazzle for Bob Fosse and Kander & Ebb's Chicago; and Rivera has a cameo in the Oscar-winning film adaptation.

    After stumbling through a very short-lived 1981 Birdie sequel ["Donald O'Connor and I tried valiantly to bring him back, but hard as we tried, we couldn't do it!"], Chita 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.


    In 1984, she received major recognition playing Liza Minelli's free-spirited mom, Anna, in Kander & Ebb's The Rink, which through its trials and tribulations managed six months on Broadway [Jason Alexander was featured]. A year and a half later, she was co-headling with Dorothy Loudon and Leslie Uggams in the Jerry Herman revue Jerry's Girls.

    In her 50-year career, Rivera's never been a dreamer. "There's nothing easy about show business," she says. "In fact, it's so seldom that the good guy wins." She, of course, is one of the exceptions.

    Looking back, she calls herself "fortunate, a lucky gal" for having had the opportunity to work with George Ballenchine, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse [Sweet Charity film], Hal Prince, Arthur Laurents and Galati.

    She's quick to note that she is, "first of all, a dancer who's grown into many other things with the great help of the geniuses I've worked with. God's been wonderful. He said, 'Okay, I'll let you go there.' And everyday, I'm still learning."

    Dancers, explains Rivera, are an obedient lot. "We do what we're told - generally without opening our mouths. Most directors love that! But, working with these guys, I've always been able - no! been encouraged, to say what I feel."

    She also points to her outstanding line-up of "leading men": Van Dyke, Brent Carver and Anthony Crivello [Spider Woman], Donald O'Connor [Bring Back Birdie], McMartin, Banderas "and to work with such giants as Larry Kert [West Side Story], Jerry Orbach [Chicago], Jerry Herman [Jerry's Girls] and Rob Marshall."


    Her life in theater, says Rivera, "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 playwrights and creative teams who trust me and want to direct me and take me further and further down this path of theatrical adventure."

    In December 2002, Rivera received a 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.

    As obedient as she may be, Rivera also has a sharp thought process. For instance, she explains, "I really wasn't anxious to do Nine. Doing a revival was not at the top of my To Do list. I don't find them challenging. I was working in L.A. and I started hearing tidbits about what it was going to be, who was going to be in it and who'd direct. When my agent called back, I wasn't so negative. I had heard a lot about director David Leveaux. When I heard Antonio was doing it, I thought, 'What an interesting project.'"

    But, she laughs, she didn't arrive "all starry-eyed, looking at Antonio as this Hollywood sex symbol." It didn't take long for him to win her over, however. "Soon, I was thinking, 'He's born for the stage.' He was sweet, approachable, charming, savvy and respected everyone. He didn't walk around with star attitude. He sincerely wanted to be accepted as a stage actor on Broadway. And, to prove that, he worked harder than anyone. It was fabulous to see someone respect that space - to really love theater."

    To what does Rivera owe her longevity? Certainly good genes, but most of all to her absolute refusal to think negatively in the face of crisis. Especially her worst crisis.

    In a 1986 automobile accident, Rivera's left leg was crushed. That she is able to walk much less dance after her horrendous injuries in an automobile accident, is a miracle. "The prognosis wasn't good," she relates, "but I was determined I'd dance again. When I saw the x-rays, I realized that would be the hardest job of my career." She was thankful for her years as a dancer when discipline, discipline, discipline was instilled in her psyche. "Pity wasn't a word in my vocabulary. I've never been one who does anything half-way."

    Amazingly, she was released three weeks later, albeit with 18 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!"

    Many predicted the accident would end her career as a dancer, but determined trouper that she is, Chita did a couple of "shakedown" engagements before coming full-circle, career-wise, and signing on for the 1988 international tour of Can Can, with the high-kicking Rockettes. "How crazy is that?" she screams. "Of all the shows! But I didn't miss a kick!"


    She went on to stun L.A. in Lorca's House of Bernarda Alba at the Mark Taper Forum; then, on to Toronto and Broadway with her awesome footwork in K&E's Kiss of the Spider Woman [1993] and the Nine revival.

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

    As a dancer, she says, "I've always maintained 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."

    Not a day goes by, she states, "that I don't pinch myself and say thank you. There's a lot of hard work involved in 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! My philosophy is: If it works, let's do it.

    "People say," she continues, "'Aren't you sorry you didn't do the movie of this, or the movie of that?' No! Because this is the path that's been chosen for me, and I'm going to stay on it as long as I can and as long I should."

    And how will Kander and Ebb be remembered? "As two of the greatest writers we've had in musical theater," enthuses Chita. "Without them, I wouldn't be here. It's as simple as that."

    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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