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`Irrepressible' hardly even begins to describe this one

Chita Rivera's zesty musical autobiography affirms her true originality.

March 22, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

EVEN at 74, Chita Rivera has such a zest for performing that she kept her musical autobiography, "The Dancer's Life," percolating Tuesday at the start of a six-day run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Still, she knows her limitations better than anyone. When her younger colleagues did a series of splits to the floor, she started to follow their lead, then comically stopped herself.

"Been there, done that," she said.

The audience laughed appreciatively.

Indeed, Rivera's been there a lot and done a lot. In this roughly two-hour show, directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele with a script by playwright Terrence McNally, she brightly guides us through her life and career. She recounts her rise from a hyperactive childhood in a Puerto Rican family in Washington, D.C., to ballet school, to working as a Broadway gypsy, to creating such signature roles as Anita in "West Side Story" and Velma Kelly in "Chicago" to, in 2002, being the first Latina to receive a Kennedy Center Honor.

Quite a journey for a girl born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, who, when told by a producer that her name was too long to fit on a marquee, said without missing a beat, "Let's change it ... now."

From her rich and fascinating career, she recalls how Leonard Bernstein coached her in "A Boy Like That" (from "West Side Story") and taught her how to pronounce his name ("It's Bernstyne, not Bernsteen," he said), how Bob Fosse told her to calm down and how the great George Balanchine bandaged her leg at her audition for a scholarship to his School of American Ballet.

Her remark that she was willing to "crawl through broken glass" to get a career boost might have seemed an exaggeration until she reminded us that doctors said she would never dance again after a serious car accident in 1986. Well, she had 16 screws put in her left leg, and she's still at it. There's grit beneath that zest.

For all that, the peak of the show was a sequence in which Rivera illuminated the essential stylistic differences among some of the choreographers she's worked with -- Jack Cole, Peter Gennaro, Jerome Robbins and Fosse -- as her ensemble of eight dancers, silhouetted behind a scrim, crisply demonstrated the moves.

There's always a certain amount of illusion in theater, and Rivera did less than she seemed to, certainly less than she used to. She spun more slowly. Her kicks, understandably, were less high. The songs and dances also were often given merely in snippets, and her voice showed wear. Her dancers provided a cushioning, supportive frame.

Yet to paraphrase Tennyson, if much has been taken, much remains. A diminished original is still an original, and Rivera is definitely that. There's no substitute. Her final turn singing "All That Jazz" proved she can still lay claim to Velma Kelly's anthem.

The ensemble Tuesday consisted of Richard Amaro, Lloyd Culbreath, Raymond Del Barrio, Pascale Faye, Richard Montoya, April L. Nixon, Jennifer Savelli and Lisa Mordente (Rivera's daughter) subbing for an ill Carolyn Doherty.

The small, amplified orchestra was conducted by Gordon N. Twist. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote two not-very-memorable songs for the show. It premiered at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2005 before moving to Broadway. A March 27-April 1 Los Angeles engagement, which was added to the original national tour, was canceled. A pity.


`Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life'

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. today and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Price: $15 to $65

Info: (714) 556-2787 or

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