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A CurtainUp Review
Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life

In this business it's not who you've slept with but who you danced with. --- Chita Rivera, during a sequence on the choreographers who have been part of her fifty year career.

Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera
What do Chita River and Elaine Stritch have in common besides a high enough ranking on the charismatic diva index to warrant their own one person biographical shows? You guessed it. A sexy pair of legs or what in their younger days was known as great gams.

In her Elaine Stritch At Liberty, Stritch alternated between standing on those long, shapely and age-defying legs or sitting on the show's single prop, a stool, as she delivered her tell-all memoir. In Chita Rivera, A Dancer's Life, Rivera, the fiery Rivera kicks up her legs and literally dances her way through the story of how little Dolores Conchita del Rivero went from ballet school to show gypsy to musical theater star and recipient of two Tony Awards (Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink) as well as the Kennedy Center's Medal of Honor.

Unlike the Stritch stage biography of three seasons ago, A Dancer's Life, is not really a solo show. Oh, it is, in that it is all about Chita and if she caught a cold and couldn't perform there's no way an understudy could replace her. The cadre of dancers who share the stage with Rivera aren't there to cover up an aging dancer's no longer being able to make the moves. While she wisely leaves the really high leaps to this chorus, the 72-year-old Chita is more than up to expressively re-creating her famous long-ago routines. Her voice -- for she's as much singer as dancer -- is in good shape too. The chorus also serves the purpose of underscoring one of the chief points of Rivera's vision of her career: that she has still identifies with the gypsy performers who are always ready to move from one show to the next -- and that she just happens to be one of the lucky ones who crossed over from the chorus and into the spotlight.

The two hour show has a book by Terence McNally that organizes the biographical details into a logical sequence of personal and career highlights (with Rivera on hand to provide first-hand information, Patrick Pacheco's credit for biographical research is rather puzzling). As the title implies, the personal is incidental to the dancing. This is basoca;;u a revue with lots of excerpts from the best known Rivera shows interspersed with patter that can hardly be viewed as in-depth or particularly revelatory. What does come through is an extremely likeable, never mean-spirited woman. This generosity of spirit is evident throughout -- from the way she integrates herself into the chorus as just another gypsy, to her odes to fellow performers like Glen Verdon and, in the show's best and most electrifying scene, her tribute to the choreographers in her life.

It would take a superb book and a super raconteur to prevent a show like this, even with a star as thoroughly endearing and still magnetic as Chita, to keep the biographical material from rising above being an overly sentimental valentine to herself. Mr. McNally's script is unfortunately well organized but hum-drum and so the show sizzles only when it dances and sings. With excerpts from West Side Story, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Chicago, there's no shortage of sizzle.

Some dance sequences work a lot better than others. "Dancing On the Kitchen Table" in which the ensemble replays a typical dinner in Chita's childhood home (DC) is fun visually. However, this original song contribution from Lynn Ahrens and Stephn Flaherty doesn't compare well in the light of the far better show turnes from the likes of Kander and Ebb.

Polishing off all the men in her life with a few McNally one-liners and a series of tangos comes off rather superficially. On the other hand, choreographer-director Graciela Daniele's shadow dancing scenes are stunning -- starting with the opening scene in which we see a young Chita dancing (a delightful and gifted sixth grader, Liana Ortiz) with the shadowy figures of Chita's saxophonist dad (chorus member Richard Amaro) and the current Chita in silhouette behind a well used scrim. The shadow dancing choreography is again smartly used during the "Co-Stars" sequence when chorus member Lloyd Culbreath is a silhouetted Dick Van Dyke. This technique reaches its peak in the already mentioned crême-de-la-crême tribute to choreographers Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Peter Gennaro which is something of a master class on their craft.

The band, smartly positioned on a platform above the stage, is terrific and Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer's lighting subtly brings them into the spotlight several times. With Broadway show dancing either downplayed or reminiscent of an aerobics class in recent years, the musicals that Rivera's career span indeed represent a golden era. Thus this chance to revisit some of the most memorable musical theater moments with the ultimate gypsy-turned-star diva makes Chita Rivera, The Dancer's Life a treat dance aficionados won't want to miss.

Written by Terrence McNally
Directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele
Original songs by Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty
Musical concepts, arrangements & direction by Mark Hummel
Jerome Robbins choreography reproduced by Alan Johnson; Bob Fosse choreography reproduced by Tony Stevens
Biographical research by Patrick Pacheco
Cast: Chita Rivera and Liana Ortiz; Ensemble: Richard Amaro, Lloyd Culbreath, Malinda Farrington, Edgard Gallardo, Deidre Goodwin, Richard Montoya, Lainie Sakakura, Alex Sanchez, Allyson Tucker. Swings: Madeleine Kelly, Cleve Asbury,
Set Design: Loy Arcenas
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design: Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound Design: Scott Lehrer
Hair Design: David Brian Brown Music Coordinator: Michael Keller Additional Orchestrations: Larry Hochman Synthesizer Programmer: Andrew Barrett
ORCHESTRA -- Conductor: Mark Hummel; Associate Conductor: Gary Adler; Piano: Mark Hummcl; Keyboard 2: Gary Adler; Violin: Entcho Todorov; Cello: Wolfram Koessel; Reeds: Ted Nash. Mark Phaneuf; Lead Trumpet: Jeff Kicvit; Trumpet: John Chudoba; Trombones/Tuba: Randy Andos; Bass: Jim Donica; Drums: Michael Crofter; Percussion: Bill Hayes
Running time: 1 hours, 55 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre,236 West 45th Street, 212/239-6200
From 11/23/05 to 6/11/06 opening 12/11/05
Tuesday, Thurs to Saturday @ 8pm, Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm; after 12/12: Tuesday @ 7pm, Thursday to Saturday @ 8pm, Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm. No Wed performances.

Tickets: $101.25 to $56.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 15th performance
Musical Numbers (*indicates original songs by Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty)
Act One
    Peifidia with Liana Ortiz, Richard Amaro

    Secret o' Life

    *Dancing on the Kitchen Table with Richard Montoya. Edgard Gallardo, Allyson Tucker, Lainie Sakakura, Malinda Farrington, Richard Amaro

    with Malinda Farrington, Deirdre Goodwin, Lainie Sakakura, Allyson Tucker, Liana Ortiz

    Something to Dance About (Call Me Madam) with Richard Montoya
    I'm Available (Mr. Wonderful)
    Camille, Colette, Fifi (Seventh Heaved) with Allyson Tucker, Deidre Goodwin
    Garbage (The Shoestring Review)
    Can-Can (Can-Con) with Allyson Tucker, Malinda Farrington, Lainie Sakakura, Deidre Goodwin
    Mr. Wonderful (Mr. Wonderful)

    A Boy Like That
    Dance at the Gym (Mambo) Edgard Gallardo as Chita's Partner with Ensemble
    Somewhere with Ensemble

    Put on a Happy Face (Bve Bye Birdie) with Lloyd Culbreath
    Rosie (Bte Bye Birdie) with Lloyd Culbreath
    Don't `Ah Ma' Me (The Rink)
    Big Spender (Sweet Charity) with Deidre Goodwin
    Nowadays (Chicago)
Act Two
    THE AUDITION Lloyd Culbreath as The Choreographer with Ensemble

    Tangos: Adios Nonino, Detresse, Calanibre ... with Richard Amaro, Liana Ortiz More Than You Know with Ensemble

    CHOREOGRAPHERS with Ensemble

    *A Woman the World Has Never Seen
    Class (Chicago)
    Chief Cook & Bottlewasher (The Rink)
    Kiss of the Spider Woman (Kiss of the Spider Woman)
    Where You Are (Kiss of the Spider Woman) with Ensemble Men

    All That Jazz (Chicago) with Liana Ortiz, Ensemble

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