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Chita Rivera brings Broadway to Oklahoma.
By Rick Rogers
| Published: August 8, 2012
To paraphrase a familiar show business saying, “You might be able to lure the girl away from Broadway but you can't take the Broadway out of the girl.” Two-time Tony Award-winning performer Chita Rivera demonstrated that notion in spectacular fashion with her one-woman show “Chita Rivera: My Broadway.”
The closing production of Lyric Theatre's 2012 summer season, “My Broadway” offers a dazzling collection of songs from the Broadway shows in which Rivera has appeared, numbers which are interspersed with anecdotes ranging from the poignant to the humorous.
Rivera is a Broadway legend whose fame is every bit the equal of Hollywood's most luminous stars. She was the quintessential gypsy, the dancer who got plucked out of the chorus, had her mettle tested in a few featured parts and ultimately graduated to starring roles.
And what roles she originated — Anita in “West Side Story,” Rosie in “Bye Bye Birdie,” Velma in “Chicago,” Anna in “The Rink” and the title character in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Furthermore, at an age when most performers are happy to rest on their laurels, Rivera will return to Broadway this fall in a revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
Dance has figured prominently in Rivera's remarkable career, but at age 79, she has closed that chapter in her life. She made light of that decision in her opening number, Jerome Kern's delightful “I Won't Dance.”
“My Broadway” takes a journey filled with nostalgia, from the highly-charged emotions of “A Boy Like That” to the lighthearted, even flippant attitude of “America,” both from “West Side Story,” the show that truly launched her career.
It was easy to understand her astonishment when she pointed out that 2012 marks the 55th anniversary of that groundbreaking musical. Patting the underside of her chin, Rivera said she still feels like she's living the life of a 35-year old woman.
But a 35-year old can't summon the life experiences Rivera calls upon to inform her material. Watching her perform is like a master class in how to act a musical theater song. I've rarely heard a performance of “Where Am I Going?” from “Sweet Charity” that resonated so powerfully. Or experienced the abundant joy of “Nowadays” from “Chicago.”
While Rivera may no longer accept dancing roles, she still moves like a dancer. Give her a top hat and cane, and she slips effortlessly back into the lithe moves that defined the seedy characters who populate “Chicago.”
It's staggering to think of the great talents Rivera has worked with in her starry career: Bernstein and Sondheim in “West Side Story,” Coleman and Fields in “Sweet Charity,” Strouse and Adams in “Bye Bye Birdie.” But as she explained, the Chita Rivera we know today couldn't have happened without Kander and Ebb.
From writing her cabaret act in the 1970s to her Tony Award-winning performance in “The Rink,” Kander and Ebb gave Rivera some of the greatest musical theater material. “Before there was a ‘Spider-Man' on Broadway,” she offered as justification, there was a ‘Spider Woman.'”
As she launched into “Where You Are,” a brilliant star turn, I was flooded with memories of seeing her perform that number on Broadway in June 1993. Then, as she deftly segued into the show's title number, you understood just how special the Kander/Ebb/Rivera partnership was.
Backed by a dozen-piece, on stage orchestra, Rivera took every opportunity to explore the full range of human emotions, from flirting with the audience to blowing a kiss to the late Fred Ebb as she gazed skyward. Rivera also paid tribute to the recently-departed Marvin Hamlisch with her poignant encore, Carol Hall's “My Circle of Friends.”
And while Rivera doesn't include it in her cabaret act, one song from the countless scores she's introduced seems especially appropriate in summing up her spectacular career: “I Like What I Do” from “Bring Back Birdie.” In the words of Edward Kleban, Rivera is indeed “A Class Act.” Don't miss her.
— Rick Rogers