BWW Review: CHITA RIVERA Lives Out Loud at 54 Below
About half-way through her show at Feinstein's/54 Below, you realize that what made Chita Rivera a star was sex. It's not that Chita Rivera isn't talented, because she has all the talent you can be born with, all the talent you can learn - all the talent that it is possible for one human being to have, Chita Rivera has, and she always did. What Chita Rivera also had was timing and luck. Before Ms. Rivera and a redhead with whom she has had a passing acquaintance, the women of Broadway were of a different type. They were strong, they were fascinating, they were beautiful. They had style, they had grace, they had flair. But they did not have sex. They had sex appeal, but not sex. Clearly, Reno Sweeney was a sexually active woman. Even today, the song "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" is dirty, so imagine what it must have been like in 1938 when Mary Martin first sang it. But Merman and Martin belonged to a different era when sex standards were sophisticated and suggestive, naughty and nuanced. Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart mastered the art of talking about sex without talking about sex, and it was deliciously dirty.
A few years later, though, Gwen Verdon opened a door to a time when women were changing and musical theater stopped suggesting sex and brought it out onto the stage as one of the characters in plays like Can Can and Damn Yankees; and once that door was open, Chita Rivera stepped in with a sonic BOOM. Because Anita wasn't just sexy, Anita was having sex. Anita was having sex with Bernardo and she was doing it every day, and the audiences knew it -- they were brought into the conversation by lyrics like "Anita's gonna get her kicks Tonight" and "Don't matter if he's bothered, as long as he's hot."
Chita Rivera and all of that sex had arrived.
It's been 62 years since West Side Story, and on the stage at 54 Below Chita Rivera and all that sex has arrived again.
There's no point in being coy about Chita Rivera's age. Anyone with access to certain entertainment industry databases can look up her age. It wouldn't matter, though, because she jokes about her age throughout her show, kicking up her leg about two feet off the ground and saying "see that? It used to be up here" while raising her hand high above her head "But it's still off the floor." And the audience burst into applause. Ms. Rivera talks about walking with the wind so it will assist you in your journey, and she discusses all the people who helped her make her memories "I call him Lenny because I can." And with every story, every wicked giggle, every Rivera wiggle, and every belting, whispering, growling, howling perfect note of song, Chita Rivera brings the sex. No amount of time past will ever take it away from her - the sex is one of the hundred facets making up this rare, fair diamond. This show that Ms. Rivera has been doing since October 8th is more than just a lesson in the history of Broadway, it's a lesson in how to live life to the fullest.
With absolute Kander (see what I did there?), Chita Rivera spends 75-ish minutes chatting with the audience flirtatiously and fabulously, as she recounts vastly entertaining stories about the days of West Side Story, Chicago, The Rink, and Sweet Charity, throwing in mashups from Spider Woman and The Visit, dedicated to Hal Prince and Roger Rees. She exhibits a puckish sense of humor, dancing around the stage with her feet, her hands, her vocal cords, her band, her eyes, her sighs, and every bit of her being. Chita Rivera may be the quintessential Broadway dancer, but her dancing is an all-consuming part of her - she is unable to be in an awakened state and not be dancing with some part of her being, as evidenced in an epic performance of Jacques Brel's "Carousel" in which she performs Herculean acts of pronunciation at record speed, all the while using her hands, face and arms to tell an equally epic tale, in time with the music. A person unaware of the inimitable genius that makes Chita Rivera a two-time Tony Award winner and bona fide Broadway legend would be spent at the end of her show, one that takes the audience on, not a carousel but, a roller coaster of every emotion you can have in a theater, from the ardent experience of watching her dance to the abject longing of hearing her speak of losing a beloved friend; but those lucky members of the audience who know from Chita Rivera walk in prepared to be taken to the heights with "Chief Cook and Bottle Washer" and brought back to earth with the loveliest "I Don't Remember You" this writer has ever heard. This is not Chita Rivera looking back at her past, this is Chita Rivera living in the moment, teaching all within hearing distance that which she has learned along the way: You can do it if you bring your own shoes.
In an evening that includes performances by Tony Award nominee Lisa Mordente, Gary Adler (musical director and piano), Jim Donica (bass) and Eric Poland (percussion), particular highlights include seeing mother and daughter Rivera and Mordente bring to life a couple of really classy numbers from Chicago, and an astonishing "Where Am I Going?" in which Chita Rivera gives a master class in how to step, immediately, out of one moment and into another, delivering a musical monologue of such heartbreak as to leave an audience dabbing their eyes with their dinner napkin. This is not cabaret, this is life.
There is a photo of Chita Rivera being used to publicize this play; in it, the fiery Latin is dressed in red, arms up in the air in celebration. This is, surely, Chita Rivera in her most natural state. Those who have seen her dance have seen her in this pose. Those who have seen her speak, heard her sing, have seen her strike this pose. It reminds one of Zorba the Greek, who threw his arms up like this when he danced, it reminds one of Tevya, who threw his arms up like this when he danced... it reminds this writer of Antonio Banderas, who threw his arms up like this while dancing as Guido Contini in Nine. It reminds one of these men, but it is, most certainly, not the move of the men: it is the move of Chita Rivera. This is the pose of a woman who lives, who knows how to live, who survives, who keeps moving, who eats life.
Somewhere there is a dictionary, and if there isn't now there will be someday, where the word CHITA is thus defined: "One who eats life."
Above photos by Stephen Mosher