While those of us who closely follow Broadway musical theater consider Chita Rivera a legend of extraordinary accomplishment, less theater-devoted audience members outside of New York may only know the name in passing, if at all. This fact alone is sufficient reason that theatergoers should leap at the chance to see this national treasure in person, and performing some of the glorious songs and dances that made her a recent Kennedy Center Honoree, as she embarks on a national tour of the autobiographical show that played Broadway last season. Cincinnati is the first stop on the tour of Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, and as demonstrated on the stage of the Aronoff Center during holiday season, it is a celebration of all that is good in theater.
Chita Rivera, the person, has garnered seven Tony Award nominations (with two wins) through a professional career that has stretched over 56 years. She has created leading roles in numerous theater classics including Chicago (Velma) and West Side Story (Anita). Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life provides a wonderful overview of this versatile performer's rise from young ballerina to one of the grand dames of the Great White Way.
If Ms. Rivera's singing voice has lost a little luster and her leg kicks aren't quite as high as they once were, it is still amazing to realize that the energetic woman dancing and singing up a storm for nearly two hours will turn 74 years old next month. She brings an arsenal of talents to the stage that few others possess in quality or quantity: unmatched professionalism, star-quality stage presence, endearing personality, dynamic storytelling, first-rate mimicry, deft lyric delivery and interpretation, comic timing, and, of course, sharp dancing. Despite solid work by the talented eight member ensemble, it is difficult to keep from focusing on Chita whenever she graces the stage.
The book for The Dancer's Life is by Terrence McNally. The script would benefit from more focus on Chita, the woman, rather than Chita, the performer. And, those wanting the type of juicy gossip given by Elaine Stritch in her autobiographical show won't find much here. However, having a somewhat formulaic showcase of Chita's career is likely the best thing for an audience that might not know her credits by heart, as do many people who saw the show in New York. The storytelling by Ms. Rivera moves at a crisp pace (except for the portion about the men in her life that opens act two), and the anecdotal stories that accompany the shows and people with which she has been associated are interesting and fun. Two new songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty serve the narrative sufficiently, but are just adequate by theatrical standards.
Director/choreographer Graciele Daniele does well with the transitions, tone and general staging of the piece. The recreation of songs and dances from West Side Story ("A Boy Like That," "Dance at the Gym"), The Rink ("Chief Cook and Bottlewasher"), Kiss of the Spider Woman ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") and Chicago ("All That Jazz"), to name a few, are certainly highlights of the show, and are handled with care. A great deal of respect from Ms. Rivera and the creators of this musical is shown to Chita's famous co-stars from years passed (Liza Minnelli, Gwen Verdon, Dick Van Dyke) and some of the choreographers who most influenced her (Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins, Peter Gennaro, Bob Fosse). These scenes provide a historical reference and emotional connection that show an appreciation for the art of dance and the partnership that theater requires.
The sets by Loy Arcenas are minimal, yet apt, and the costumes by Toni-Leslie James are no nonsense, but attractive. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's lighting design is recreated on the tour by Beverly Emmons, and provides the showbiz flash and a full palate of colors that the overall design concepts need. Gordon Twist provides strong musical direction of the spirited twelve-piece orchestra.
For theater aficionados who have long recognized Chita Rivera as a theater legend, and for those audience members who might get an introduction to her for the first time through this show, seeing Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life is an opportunity that should not be missed. Not only do you get to see this splendid performer in person, but you also gain insight and appreciation for dance, theater and the artists that call the stage their home. In the show, Chita Rivera says that choreographer Jerome Robbins gave her the detail, style and substance that made her the dancer she is today. It is that same detail, style and substance that make this show an entertaining one.
Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through December 31, 2006.
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