At the start of her spirited musical memoir, Chita Rivera tells the audience, “Looking back doesn’t have to be painful.” The line is not really profound, but a simple fact: This dancer’s life has been a happy one. “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” is a refreshingly upbeat stage autobiography, a cleverly structured, sparingly sentimental homage to the musical theater and the people who devote their careers to it. Opening at San Diego’s Old Globe on its way to a December Broadway berth, the show displays enough originality and pizzazz to have –pardon the pun — legs.
As a theatrical species, the show falls somewhere between the traditional tell-all and an actual musical based on Rivera’s life story, but is certainly closer to the former. At its core stands Rivera, commanding center stage with graceful ease, narrating to us the major experiences of her quite charmed life and re-creating key songs performed in the course of her career.
Flashing back from when she received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2002, she covers the key topics: her childhood, getting started, her big break, her big shows, her co-stars, the choreographers she’s worked with, the men in her life, etc.
But Rivera, and her adept writer-collaborator, Terrence McNally, know musical theater well enough to understand the best scenes in a musical are never spoken: Music and choreography can communicate the emotion of an event far better than a witty one-liner.
Thus, key pieces of Rivera’s story overflow from first-person narration into actual theatrical compositions, aided by some excellent choreography, a supporting ensemble of diverse dancers, and by songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who have contributed two new songs .
One at the start — a vivacious piece called “Dancing on the Kitchen Table” — captures the happy chaos of Rivera’s childhood in Washington, D.C., while the other, for the bold penultimate sequence, wraps together a medley of greatest hits in a number about Rivera’s relationship with the characters she has played.
This theatrical translation of real-life events also works for Rivera’s recollection of her marriage to dancer Tony Mordente. Rivera provides a quick characterization of her ex-husband as a jealous man and expresses sorrow at their failed relationship. This turns into a dance number, a tango staged by director-choreographer Graciela Daniele, that expresses the passion, emotional violence and pain of the breakup.
In addition to making this show more than just a stale rehash of the past by literally transforming life into dance, this approach allows Rivera to avoid delving into the negative or relying on typical biographical cliches. This is a show that consciously seeks to eschew the “Behind the Music” structure of setback and redemption. Rivera rejects such a template for her life — no grand tears, barely a breath of tell-all dirt and no self-pitying struggles to overcome a lack of self-esteem.
Of her affair with Sammy Davis Jr., she gives us only an unsentimental “No regrets.” Of the car accident that shattered her leg and required massive physical therapy, we get a near-dismissive wave and this quick and clever summation: “Just like the movies, they told me I would never dance again. And just like the movies, here I am I don’t know how many performances later.”
While that choice keeps the show on the cheery side, it also makes her recollections a bit bland. There is a sense that she’s holding back.
The fusion of storytelling, music and dance all flows quite smoothly under Daniele’s direction. The nicely truncated tour of Rivera’s musical theater career works, even if it’s more charming than thrilling. Rivera sings memorable selections from early flops like “Seventh Heaven”; her big break, “West Side Story”; and her Tony-winning turns in “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” The show hits peaks during its original numbers and its finale, “All That Jazz.”
Daniele also deserves notice for leading the design team toward a contemporary tone rather than a nostalgic approach.
Rivera’s energy level helps in that regard: There’s no mustiness here. At 72, she has, of course, lost a step or two. It would be inhuman if she hadn’t. But she still looks phenomenal in her sequined dress with fishnet stockings, sings powerfully, demonstrates remarkable stamina as the second act becomes more demanding and, most important, makes up for lost flexibility and speed in two ways.
First, she lets others do what she can’t — striking a pose and then letting her coterie of youthful dancers take it from there. In a terrific master class on master choreographers, for example, Rivera mostly provides commentary as the ensemble re-creates the dance styles of Jack Cole, Peter Gennaro, Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins.
Second, and more importantly, whenever Rivera dances, even if it’s not what it once might have been, she sells it with enough flair to close the deal. The kids might kick higher and bend back further, but it’s Rivera who commands our attention, if only because she’s focused on the expression of the dance rather than the step itself.
That’s really what her show is all about. It’s about the dancer as vessel and teammate.