Broadway in Seattle: Chita Rivera The Dancers Life
A Woman the World Has Never Seen
After years of delay, Chita Rivera: The Dancers Life opened on Broadway last year to tentative reviews and poor box office. It faltered after only a few months. Several attempts were made to entice audiences with additional material and guest stars. The failure of the Broadway mounting was disheartening to fans of Golden Age theatre. It felt like an era had ended. Audiences no longer seemed to appreciate a great time step or a nostalgic story. What did the failure of this particular show mean for future projects rooted in traditional musical theatre values? Currently on a national tour of the states, Rivera's life story seems more natural the road. Rivera dances up a storm, sings with her trademark belt, and achieves the rare feat of winning over an entire audience. She looks like a million bucks. All this at a mere 74 years old.
This dancing diva extraordinaire, known for never missing a matinee, truly captures the excitement of an era often stereotyped as dusty and one-dimensional. With so little film footage of this hardworking hoofer, this tour is absolutely necessary. Rivera is handing down her memories to her audience. Telling us what happened, how it happened, and who made it happen. Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, the artist known to us as Chita Rivera has won two Tony Awards, received the prestigious Kennedy Center Award, and danced the tango with Antonio Banderas.
With the aid Terrance McNally's book and new musical material by Ahrens and Flaherty, The Dancers Life takes us through a life full of success, tragedy, lessons, and above all, dancing. McNally manages to capture all the big personal events of his subject while still keeping her work center stage. Rivera spends as much time paying tribute to her co-stars as she does highlighting her personal accomplishments. One segment has a silhouetted Chita dancing to the lilting "Rosie" from Bye Bye Birdie with the figure of soft-shoe extraordinaire Dick Van Dyke by her side. Her touching Act I closer has her performing "Nowadays" from Chicago as if costar Gwen Verdon were still at her side. Time seemed to stand still as pupil paid tribute to one of her many teachers. Verdon's presence in the auditorium was palpable.
The Dancers Life truly captures the magic of the theatre. It touches on why audiences crave the humanity of dance. Ms. Rivera perfectly negotiates the relationship between audience and performer. The intimacy achieved in the big old movie house that is Seattle's Paramount Theatre was simply remarkable. Rivera employs the assistance of several Broadway gypsies. These extraordinary dancers are the heart of this production. This is far from a vanity piece. Far less gossipy than recent career retrospectives, The Dancer's Life spends its time focusing on the work. Sure, there are unavoidable life stories outside of her work as a dancer. Her affair with Sammy Davis Jr. if finally confirmed. We learn of the tragic taxi cab accident that threatened her future as a dancer. Doctors said she would never dance again. Rivera proved them wrong.. McNally and Rivera get most things right. There are a few excluded musical numbers that are missed. The show-stopping "Where You Are" from Kiss of the Spider Woman is not included as it was on Broadway. Little is said of the catastrophic flops Bajour, Zenda, and Merlin. A moment of recognition of jealousy when Rita Moreno won the Oscar for playing Chita's Anita on screen reveals a woman with equal parts pride and humility.
For fans of Chita Rivera's work, the material included here won't disappoint. To see recreations of obscure novelty items like "Camille Collette, Fifi" from Seventh Heaven and "I'm Available" from Mr Wonderful" is a privilege. There is a large section devoted to the process of West Side Story, detailing the tumultuous events behind the now legendary show. Seeing THE Chita Rivera perform the original choreography to "America" is worth the ticket price alone. The Act II opening has Chita reminiscing about important choreographers while her dancers display the distinct styles of each. Director and Choreographer Graciela Daniele provides a fluid presentation that fits its star perfectly. Ahrens and Flaherty provide excellent specialty material throughout. "Dancing on the Kitchen Table", a fierce up tempo number recalling Rivera's childhood, is a highlight.
Anyone with overwhelming love for musicals will find it hard to resist The Dancers Life. Ms. Rivera's passion for her work is undeniable. Rivera is even set to recreate her starring role in Kander and Ebb's The Visit in a much buzzed about production. Is another legendary Chita Rivera performance headed to Broadway? Her accomplishments continue with no sign of retirement in sight. Last year she even received a Tony nomination for playing herself. Dame Rivera's story is still unfolding. She has given her audience the wonderful gift of the past. The stories, the dances, the people are all present in this intimate evening.. This is a portrait of the career of, to quote Ahren's perfectly tailored lyric, "A woman the world has never seen".
Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life ran from February 28 to March at Seattle's Paramount Theatre. Roundabout Theatre Company's tour of Twelve Angry Men will play March 20-March 24, followed by the homecoming of The Light in the Piazza.
Photos by Paul Kolnik