DIVA TALK: Two-Time Tony Winner Chita Rivera Dazzles in Solo Broadway Cares Concert
By Andrew Gans
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Chita: A Legendary Celebration
The energy in the August Wilson Theatre was palpable with the sold-out crowd's excitement growing as the superb 15-member orchestra, led by conductor Michael Croiter on drums and Michael Patrick Walker on piano, raced through a terrific medley of songs associated with Rivera's career. And, then the legendary singer-actress-dancer made her entrance in true star fashion: Rivera, dressed in bright red by Susan Hilferty, rose from below the stage through a trap door to rapturous applause.
Rivera kicked off her evening with a spirit-raising version of "A Lot of Livin' to Do" from Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' Bye, Bye Birdie. (Kudos to sound designer Andrew Keister, who provided a perfect balance between Rivera's vocals and the onstage band.)
"I had no idea celebrating my 100th birthday would be so much fun," Rivera joked, explaining it was no longer possible to keep her 80 years a secret. "I'm from the Golden Age," she added, wondering what could possibly follow being "Golden." "Platinum," a friend countered.
Directed by Graciela Daniele and written by Terrence McNally, the evening featured highlights from Rivera's award-winning career with just enough patter to illuminate the songs that followed. Rivera recalled being summoned to Leonard Bernstein's apartment, where he sat her down and proceeded to teach her all of Anita's music from West Side Story. The Kennedy Center Honoree then tantalized the crowd with a fiery verse from "A Boy Like That" that segued into a terrific "America."
"How do you step into the shoes of Gwen Verdon?": Rivera admitted that was her initial reaction to a phone call from Bob Fosse and Verdon asking her to star in the first national tour of Sweet Charity. One of her "little people," Rivera joked, told her, "Bring your own shoes!" A deeply felt version of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields' "Where Am I Going" from that 1966 musical followed.
Rivera then introduced her first special guest, nine-time Tony winner Tommy Tune, who, dressed in a red tuxedo with custom-made red suede shoes, serenaded the evening's hostess-with-the-mostest with Bye, Bye Birdie's "Rosie." Tune, also in good voice, first appeared atop the Jersey Boys stage and then glided down the spiral staircase to join his long-time friend in the touching duet. Their genuine affection for each other as friends and colleagues was apparent.
Kyle Taylor Parker and Nathan Peck, dressed in drag and sporting sky-high Kinky Boots, joined Rivera for a humorous trio of "Camille, Collette, Fifi." Rivera followed with a medley of "Sweet Happy Life" and "Mas que Nada" before launching into the evening's vocal high point, a thrilling, haunting rendition of Jacques Brel's "Carousel." The way Rivera breathed into each and every lyric brought beauty to her vocals, and the use of her voice, hands and arms — combined with the wonderful musical arrangement by Mark Hummel and orchestration by Lynne Shankel as well as Jeff Croiter's lighting — created a perfect, theatrical and highly moving moment.
A video from composer John Kander kicked off the intermissionless evening's second half, one devoted entirely to the songs written by Kander and the late Fred Ebb. Up first was a medley from Kiss of the Spider Woman, the 1993 musical that won Rivera her second Tony. Backed by dancers Richard Amaro, Brad Bradley, Lloyd Culbreath, Raymond Del Barrio, Robert Montano and Alex Sanchez, Rivera dazzled with portions of "Where You Are," "Gimme Love" and an especially belty version of the title tune.
A simple, touching reading of The Happy Time's "I Don't Remember You" preceded Rivera's recollection of a Kander and Ebb phone call inviting her to be part of their new musical The Rink, which would co-star Liza Minnelli. "Oh, I'd love to play girlfriends with Liza," Rivera remembered telling her songwriting friends. "Oh… It's a mother and daughter.… Who's playing the mother?" Rivera laughed. She then delivered a rousing "Chief Cook and Bottle Washer."
"Love and Love Alone" was the sole offering from the Broadway-bound The Visit, and Rivera concluded her high-energy set with three tunes from Chicago, each special in its own way. For "Class," which drew laugh after laugh, she was joined by Tony winner Ben Vereen, who lent his soaring vocals to the role of Matron "Mama" Morton. In "Nowadays," Rivera offered a remarkable vocal impersonation of her late friend and Chicago co-star Gwen Verdon; at one point, she bowed and blew a kiss to where Verdon would have been standing – a truly touching gesture. And, by the time Broadway's favorite gypsy belted out "And all that jah-azzz" — joined by all of her special guests — the entire audience was once again on its feet.
A visibly moved Rivera explained how grateful she was for everyone's generosity, not only towards her but to Broadway Cares. "I've lost so many of my friends to AIDS — thank you for coming, for caring, for sharing, for giving, because Broadway Cares really needs you and we must never forget that," Rivera said. She then dedicated her touching encore, "Circle of Friends," to those she had lost, those who remain and those she has yet to meet.
Although this writer has had the pleasure of catching Rivera on Broadway in Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Dancer's Life, Nine and, most recently, in the revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, this evening was somehow even more remarkable, one of those magical nights in the theatre. It was also abundantly clear that the gifted performer is loved not only by her legion of fans, but also by the theatre community, who were among those reveling in this night to remember. Happy (belated) birthday, Ms. Rivera.
Chita: A Legendary Celebration raised $413,660 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. BC/EFA executive director Tom Viola said earlier this week, "Chita has been a true and loyal friend to Broadway Cares since our beginnings more than 25 years ago. The energy and enthusiasm she shared onstage tonight were just another example of her impassioned dedication to making a difference in the lives of so many others who need our help the most." Visit Broadwaycares.org.
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