Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life Written by Terrence McNally. Original songs by Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty. Directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele. Musical concepts, arrangements & direction by Mark Hummel. Orchestrations by Danny Troob. Scenic design by Loy Arcenas. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Hair design by David Brian Brown. Jerome Robbins choreography reproduced by Alan Johnson. Bob Fosse choreography reproduced by Tony Stevens. Biographical research by Patrick Pacheco. Cast: Chita Rivera. Featuring Richard Amaro, Cleve Asbury, Lloyd Culbreath, Malinda Farrington, Edgard Gallardo, Deidre Goodwin, Madeleine Kelly, Richard Montoya, Liana Ortiz, Jasmine Perri, Lainie Sakakura, Alex Sanchez, Allyson Tucker.
In what can only be described as the most astounding feat of this or any recent season, the spirit of Gwen Verdon, musical theatre's greatest triple threat, has been summoned back to that tiny corner of Earth called Broadway to perform eight times a week at the Schoenfeld.
While it's odd that she's chosen to drop into Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life instead of a show of her own, at the end of the first act, there's no mistaking her presence. The song is "Nowadays," Chicago's penultimate number in which merry murderesses Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart finally get their vaudeville due. Rivera's the only one singing, and she's the only one you see - resplendent in a glittery black dress that accentuates her still-supple curves and legs that most 30-year-olds would kill for - but next to her throughout, invisible but in a piercing white spotlight of her own, is Verdon. And darned if she doesn't draw as much of your attention as the flesh-and-blood Rivera.
It's neither the first nor the last time that two-time Tony winner Rivera is upstaged here, but it's the most blatant example of what's wrong with this stretch-mark-pocked retrospective, which should be the most exciting one-woman show conceivable. Rivera, who's been on Broadway since 1953's Can-Can and a genuine star since 1957's West Side Story, certainly has no trouble kicking up her heels even now, and if her singing is more tentative than it once was, she can still sell a song like no one else. She's got stage presence to spare, and when she flashes you her kittenish smile, expect to be reduced to utter helplessness.
But as wonderful as Rivera is, and as fine a testament as she will always be to the "let's go on with the show" attitude that's classically typified Broadway gypsies, this show seldom allows her the opportunity to escape the ghosts of her past. These are pleasant specters, to be sure, and one would expect them to play a role in any show about her life. But this show's author, Terrence McNally - who wrote the Tony-winning book to the 1993 Rivera starrer, Kiss of the Spider Woman - doesn't do enough to set Rivera apart from them. Instead, he lets her do what gypsies ought in Broadway choruses: blend in.
When Rivera reminisces about her first professional job (at 17) dancing in the tour of Call Me Madam, she conjures up precise images of star Elaine Stritch's stature and voice, but gives you little sense of the girl who still had so much to learn. During a lengthy and enlightening sequence in the second act, Rivera speaks of the choreographers she's worked with while silent silhouettes parade upstage, recalling specific images inspired by the styles of Jack Cole, Peter Gennaro, Bob Fosse, and Jerome Robbins. But it's the men and the dancers who command your attention, not the narrator.
It's not that Rivera is just there; she's incapable of being "just" anything. But neither McNally's scattered libretto nor the busy but uninspired direction by Graciela Daniele (who also choreographed, with assistance from Alan Johnson and Tony Stevens) lets Rivera define herself for us. The second-act opener, which likens Rivera's romantic life to a series of tangos, doesn't delve sufficiently deep; two new songs penned by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, one describing how Rivera became interested in dancing and another encapsulating her later career, waste minutes saying what dialogue could say in seconds, with no commensurate emotional payoff.
It's when she recreates the numbers that made her famous that you get a sense of what this show might have been. Piffle like "Camille, Colette, Fifi" (from the flop Seventh Heaven) soars as a comic calling card of an era gone by; the "Mambo" section of West Side Story's "The Dance at the Gym" tingles with a sexual electricity too often missing in even slavish recreations today; and just to hear Rivera wrap her throaty tones around Chicago's "Class" or The Rink's "Chief Cook & Bottlewasher" is like hearing them for the first time, even if you've memorized both shows' cast recordings.
Rivera, never faltering or slowing down, is terrific in them all. That's the unique power of a true star, and it's what you long for more of throughout almost all of Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life. The physical trappings - Loy Arcenas's nightclub-meets-'50s-Broadway set, Toni-Leslie James's functional but nonspecific costumes, and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's busy lights - feel superfluous; the only color needed is Rivera. And though she almost never leaves the stage, you can never get enough of her, you long for her to unleash ever more of the charisma that sets her apart from even today's brightest talents.
She just never gets enough opportunities, what with McNally's gossip-free libretto that presents many details without the personal insight that so fueled, say, Elaine Stritch At Liberty. What you'll find instead is a fitful tribute to five decades of musical theatre dancing, from the people who set down the steps ("Here's to all the great choreographers and the young ones coming up") to the people who danced - and continue to dance - them. She even gives each ensemble member an individual bow: Richard Amaro, Lloyd Culbreath, Malinda Farrington, Edgard Gallardo, Deidre Goodwin, Richard Montoya, Lainie Sakakura, Alex Sanchez, and Allyson Tucker all deserve them, for their energetic performances and contributions to an informative evening.
But it's the final scene that most sticks with you, with Rivera and Liana Ortiz - who plays Young Chita and Rivera's daughter, Lisa Mordente, in a handful of minor scenes - doing a dance duet of Chicago's showstopping opening, "All That Jazz," with the original Fosse moves. "It's time to give something back," she says, before the two demonstrate how the right talent and dedication can make the complex simple and the simple electrifying. It's one of the rare moments in the evening that Rivera doesn't share the stage with a figure of equal or surpassing greatness, and it's welcome.
It should be stated, though, that she doesn't need to give anything back; she's spent her entire on-stage life giving, and how could dancers or audiences not be inspired? One can't help but wish that for most of Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, she'd take just a bit more. The people she salutes are more than worth the praise she heaps on them. But Rivera is equally worthy of celebration for being still here, still kicking, and still showing us how it should always be done.