‘Chita’ prowls Broadway jungle

Producers count on diva's Rialto loyalists but court broader auds

Will “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” have, excuse the expression, legs?

We all know Rivera has them. The 72-year-old Broadway favorite kicked them up in the original productions of “West Side Story,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Chicago,” and was still kicking them up on the Great White Way as recently as two seasons ago in “Nine.”

But that doesn’t necessarily ensure her stage biography, a memoir with song-and-dance opening Dec. 11 at the Schoenfeld, will have the staying power of the star herself.

For this “Chita” to prosper, the show will have to sell beyond her adoring core of Rialto fans.

“Chita does not have the profile of a movie star,” acknowledges “Dancer’s Life” producer Marty Bell. Which means she doesn’t have the drawing power of, say, Billy Crystal, whose solo bio, “700 Sundays,” raked in the dough during the 2004-05 season.

Nor does “The Dancer’s Life” come to Broadway with a solid promotional foundation laid by a well-received Off Broadway run, as did the autobio of another legit legend, “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty,” when it hit the Neil Simon in 2002. “Dancer’s Life” preemed outside the Gotham spotlight earlier this fall at the Old Globe in San Diego, where it earned mixed to positive reviews.

“The Chita loyalists will get us through the first couple of months,” Bell says. After that, what?

First Bell aims to drum up biz among fans of the golden age of the Broadway musical.

“Chita is really the last person left from a different and better era,” he says. “As much as the show features a performer, it also features a particular time in Broadway history.”

“Chita was present at the creation of a very different kind of musical, beginning with ‘West Side Story,’ ” says Terrence McNally (“Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!”), who wrote the show based on Rivera’s work and remembrances.

“Theater is passed on as an oral tradition, and there isn’t a film about this era. There’s Chita talking about it,” the scribe adds.

Marketing emphasizes that “Dancer’s Life” isn’t just about Chita. Ads point up the fact that the show is not a solo piece — 10 performers back the star — and invoke nostalgia by including the titles of landmark shows in which she has appeared.

Bell hopes press coverage also will pull in such Broadway fans. San Diego reviews, for instance, singled out a sequence in which Rivera reminisces about the famed choreographers with whom she has worked — including Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse and Gower Champion.

Rivera’s success story also likely will appeal to the girls and women who dream, or dreamed once, of becoming a stage dancer. A promo tie-in with Capezio and the studio Steps on Broadway, pairing tickets with a pre-show dance class, looks to capitalize on these potential patrons.

“Dancer’s Life” also is going after Latino auds. Producers are finalizing a deal with Coors, a beer with a strong presence in the Latino community, to get ads on cans and to boost word of mouth by distributing tickets.

Because to keep “Dancer’s Life” dancing for a while, it’s not enough that Rivera is the third most recognizable Broadway name. (She ranks behind Glenn Close and Bernadette Peters, according to marketing research done by the show’s producers.)

“We have to find ways to get specific,” Bell says.

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