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A half-century hoofer

With `Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life,' it's the role she was born to play.

March 18, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Seattle — DURING her 55-year career in Broadway musicals, song and dance gypsy Chita Rivera became a star in such challenging parts as Anita in the original cast of "West Side Story," Velma in the first (Bob Fosse) version of "Chicago" and the title character in "Kiss of the Spider Woman." But her current project is giving her, literally, the role of a lifetime.

In "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life," she plays herself -- or what she calls "the nicer side of me" -- performing a compendium of her greatest hits while working alongside dancers half a century younger, including her daughter, Lisa Mordente. "It's really just a woman telling stories and reliving her life," Rivera says. "I'm just me there, and then, when I go into the musical numbers, I'm pulling the characters I remember out of the years when I did it. Like Aurora in 'Spider Woman.' I remember that feeling, how dark she was."

Boasting new songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and a script by Terrence McNally, plus choreography and direction by Graciela Daniele, this musical autobiography plays the Orange County Performing Arts Center from Tuesday to next Sunday. (A subsequent run at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills was canceled last week.) For Southern California, it's a kind of homecoming, since the show premiered at the Old Globe in San Diego two years ago.

At age 74, anyone might be forgiven for feeling dismay at the prospect of eight singing/dancing performances a week (five jammed together on weekends) on a 16-city post-Broadway tour. But Rivera has developed a mind game to get her through the rough spots. "If we have Mondays off and we open Tuesday and then go right into a matinee the next day, I don't like that," she declares, sitting in a hotel between performances during her tour's recent stop at this city's Paramount Theatre. "It kind of takes the shimmer off the opening night, that you have to get yourself up at 10 o'clock the next day and vocalize and do all those stretching things that at this time in my life I really don't want to do.

"But psychologically, when you get to Friday, you go, 'Oh, the weekend, this is great!' So you get into the matinee and even though something might hurt, you know that it's OK because the day after tomorrow you have off."

Looking svelte and even a little tomboyish in a black pantsuit and cap, Rivera says that she wants people to think of her show as an affirmation of life -- and that age has nothing to do with a person's zest for living or appetite for new experiences. But she also acknowledges that time does take its toll. "I'd really like to walk around this town," she says in a quasi-conspiratorial undertone, "but not down those hills -- my knees." In a near-whisper: "I don't usually get into any of this stuff, but I'm Catholic. I tell it all."

"All" often includes jokes about herself, such as one involving a woman who came to see her show in New York. "She was really quite old," Rivera says. "And she looked me in the eye and said, 'You know, we're the same age.' And I wanted to kill myself." She laughs. "God love her and let her live for however long she wants to live. But this woman was old. So that shocked me, but then I got over it."

She also got over a 1986 car crash that nearly ended her performing career and left her with 16 screws in one leg. "I don't make a big deal out of it," she comments. "There are people walking around with so much more stuff done to their bodies and they've lived through it. I'm no goody two-shoes by any means, but it's working." She looks down at her famous legs. "Maybe not as well as it used to -- but it's working."

"Chita Rivera" (the show) begins by depicting the night in 2002 when she received a Kennedy Center Honor, then flashes back to her youth in Washington, D.C., her ballet studies and her first jobs in Broadway musicals. It includes reminiscences of working relationships with co-stars, composers and choreographers as well as her development into a double-Tony-winning pro.

But lots of stories remain untold, for no life can be summarized in a two-hour cavalcade without plenty of downsizing. Rivera says that she wishes the show had more about her failed marriage to fellow "West Side Story" dancer Tony Mordente ("I feel it every night."). And in conversation, she's happy to discuss matters passed over quickly onstage -- such as the roles she lost to movie actresses when her Broadway hits were filmed.

What about Rita Moreno in "West Side Story" (1961)?

"I thought she was great, absolutely right for the role," Rivera says. "When I saw her, the first thing that hit me was -- it's going to sound so stupid -- 'She's got my dress on -- that dress was designed for me. She's got my earrings too.' But I thought she was terrific."

Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago" (2002)?

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