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A CurtainUp Review
Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life
By Elyse Sommer
In her Elaine Stritch At Liberty, Stritch alternated between standing on those long, shapely and age-defying legs or sitting on the show's single prop, a stool, as she delivered her tell-all memoir. In Chita Rivera, A Dancer's Life, Rivera, the fiery Rivera kicks up her legs and literally dances her way through the story of how little Dolores Conchita del Rivero went from ballet school to show gypsy to musical theater star and recipient of two Tony Awards (Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink) as well as the Kennedy Center's Medal of Honor.
Unlike the Stritch stage biography of three seasons ago, A Dancer's Life, is not really a solo show. Oh, it is, in that it is all about Chita and if she caught a cold and couldn't perform there's no way an understudy could replace her. The cadre of dancers who share the stage with Rivera aren't there to cover up an aging dancer's no longer being able to make the moves. While she wisely leaves the really high leaps to this chorus, the 72-year-old Chita is more than up to expressively re-creating her famous long-ago routines. Her voice -- for she's as much singer as dancer -- is in good shape too. The chorus also serves the purpose of underscoring one of the chief points of Rivera's vision of her career: that she has still identifies with the gypsy performers who are always ready to move from one show to the next -- and that she just happens to be one of the lucky ones who crossed over from the chorus and into the spotlight.
The two hour show has a book by Terence McNally that organizes the biographical details into a logical sequence of personal and career highlights (with Rivera on hand to provide first-hand information, Patrick Pacheco's credit for biographical research is rather puzzling). As the title implies, the personal is incidental to the dancing. This is basoca;;u a revue with lots of excerpts from the best known Rivera shows interspersed with patter that can hardly be viewed as in-depth or particularly revelatory. What does come through is an extremely likeable, never mean-spirited woman. This generosity of spirit is evident throughout -- from the way she integrates herself into the chorus as just another gypsy, to her odes to fellow performers like Glen Verdon and, in the show's best and most electrifying scene, her tribute to the choreographers in her life.
It would take a superb book and a super raconteur to prevent a show like this, even with a star as thoroughly endearing and still magnetic as Chita, to keep the biographical material from rising above being an overly sentimental valentine to herself. Mr. McNally's script is unfortunately well organized but hum-drum and so the show sizzles only when it dances and sings. With excerpts from West Side Story, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Chicago, there's no shortage of sizzle.
Some dance sequences work a lot better than others. "Dancing On the Kitchen Table" in which the ensemble replays a typical dinner in Chita's childhood home (DC) is fun visually. However, this original song contribution from Lynn Ahrens and Stephn Flaherty doesn't compare well in the light of the far better show turnes from the likes of Kander and Ebb.
Polishing off all the men in her life with a few McNally one-liners and a series of tangos comes off rather superficially. On the other hand, choreographer-director Graciela Daniele's shadow dancing scenes are stunning -- starting with the opening scene in which we see a young Chita dancing (a delightful and gifted sixth grader, Liana Ortiz) with the shadowy figures of Chita's saxophonist dad (chorus member Richard Amaro) and the current Chita in silhouette behind a well used scrim. The shadow dancing choreography is again smartly used during the "Co-Stars" sequence when chorus member Lloyd Culbreath is a silhouetted Dick Van Dyke. This technique reaches its peak in the already mentioned crême-de-la-crême tribute to choreographers Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Peter Gennaro which is something of a master class on their craft.
The band, smartly positioned on a platform above the stage, is terrific and Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer's lighting subtly brings them into the spotlight several times. With Broadway show dancing either downplayed or reminiscent of an aerobics class in recent years, the musicals that Rivera's career span indeed represent a golden era. Thus this chance to revisit some of the most memorable musical theater moments with the ultimate gypsy-turned-star diva makes Chita Rivera, The Dancer's Life a treat dance aficionados won't want to miss.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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