Chita Rivera: The Secret of Life

Music and lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb, Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II, Irving Berlin, Jacques Brel, Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim, Cy Coleman & Dorothy Fields, James Taylor, et al

Chita Rivera – Singer
Carmel Dean – Pianist & Music Director
Jim Donica – Bass
Michael Croiter – Percussion

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 10 February, 2008
Venue: Feinsteins at the Shaw Theatre, Euston Road, London

Expected in London for a season at Wyndham’s Theatre last October, dancer, singer and actress Chita Rivera finally makes it the UK for just three nights in Feinsteins at the Shaw. (This was the last of the three nights.) It’s a pity the performer who wowed everybody some 50 years ago in “West Side Story” couldn’t stay for longer. In a packed Shaw Theatre she brought the house down and there has rarely been such a response for any artist anywhere. Chita received an audience response that even bettered that of her ‘boss’ who opened the Shaw season, Michael Feinstein, the reception for whom was quite tempered and restrained compared to the overwhelming acclaim she received at the Euston Road venue.

Dressed all in black she strides onto the stage, her legendary legs supported on the thinnest and most vertiginous high-heels imaginable. It seems as if she cannot stop moving, as if some hidden force is urging her on until she announces “I won’t dance…” which is not just the opening line to her opening number, the Jerome Kern song, but is also a stated fact. She isn’t going to dance, although, as Marlene Dietrich might say, it’s not that she wouldn’t and you and I know it’s not that she couldn’t, it’s just that she doesn’t want to. She has been dancing since she was 7 and she’s now 75 and shows no sign of giving it up or even slowing down. She claims she’s not going to dance but it takes an awful lot of will-power for her not to kick those legs up from time to time and do all those slinky movements. She occasionally gives in to temptation so that her act covers all aspects of her career as a dancer, singer and actress.

From the age of 11, Chita studied classical ballet and eventually received a scholarship form George Balanchine to study with the New York City Ballet. However, in the early 1950s music-theatre called her away from dance and she appeared in the chorus of shows such as “Call me Madam”, “Guys and Dolls”, “Can-Can”, “Shoestring Revue”, “Seventh Heaven” and “Mr Wonderful”. But it was “West Side Story” that really shot Chita Rivera to fame in 1957. The number was ‘America’. Chita still sees herself as a 35-year-old performer.

In all those years, Chita encompassed a repeat in London of her success of “West Side Story”, then back to Broadway for “Bye Bye Birdie”, the musical by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, which also came to London (the sequel, “Bring Back Birdie” didn’t and only lasted four nights on Broadway). There were further flops: “Zenda”, “Bajour” and “Merlin”. But there were also great successes in the Bob Fosse film of “Sweet Charity” with Shirley MacLaine, and tours of “Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris” and “Kiss Me, Kate”. In 1975 Chita starred with Gwen Verdon in John Kander & Fred Ebb’s “Chicago”, directed by Bob Fosse, and thus began four of the most fruitful relationships in Chita’s life, after Balanchine, Leonard Bernstein and her husband Tony Mordente.

Working with Kander & Ebb led to further shows such as “The Rink” which they wrote for Chita and Liza Minnelli, and “Kiss of the Spiderwoman”, based on the Manuel Puig book, for both of which Chita won Tony Awards. Since then she has been in a revival of the musical “Nine” (based on the film “Fellini eight and a half”) and a show based on her own career, “Chita Rivera: the dancer’s life”. Her current project is another Kander & Ebb musical, “The Visit”, based on the play by Durrenmatt, which was seen in Chicago in 2001. It has yet to play Broadway but will be staged at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia in May this year.

Having said she won’t dance, Chita sings instead in that attractively throaty vocalising that is her hallmark. And she talks, hilariously, about her early life, auditioning for “Mr Bernsteen” (“it’s Bernstine”, he corrected her) and not quite knowing how he wanted her to be in “West Side Story” – at the time she only had one way of singing a song. The stories are punctuated with Standards including Irving Berlin’s ‘Let me sing and I’m happy’ and Vincent Youmans’s ‘More than you know’, but mainly they are from the shows in which Chita appeared. From “Bye Bye Birdie” she does a trio of bright, up-tempo numbers, ‘How lovely to be a woman’, ‘A lot of livin’ to do’ and ‘Put on a happy face’. Then there’s “Sweet Charity” and ‘Big spender’, a number that has more or less left its show behind, plus ‘There’s gotta be something better than this’ and ‘Where am I going?’, two plangent pleas from a girl who always gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop of life. The Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical is such a tonic of a show, guaranteed to cure all ills and Chita throws in a little of ‘The rhythm of life’ for good measure. And the secret of Chita’s life has been to carry on regardless even after a terrible car-accident in which she broke her leg in twelve places. She got up to tell the tale and lived to dance again.

From “Chicago” Chita sings ‘All that jazz’ and ‘Nowadays’ and from “The Rink” she does ‘Chief cook and bottle washer’, all perfectly matched to her philosophical approach to life and, from another Kander & Ebb show “The Happy Time”, she does ‘I don’t remember you’, an under-appreciated number. Interesting note: producer David Merrick wanted Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields to write the show for Yves Montand, but they were too busy, so Kander & Ebb came on board, and Robert Goulet starred. Chita Rivera’s band is completely on the ball with Carmel Dean in charge of Jim Donica on bass and Michael Croiter on everything else in a collection of percussion instruments. After a couple of encores Chita brings on her daughter Lisa to do a little dance routine, sending us home in the highest of high spirits. Let’s hope we can look forward to seeing Chita in “The Visit” sometime soon, or in anything at all, really.

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