Chita Rivera Returns to Feinstein’s/54 Below

Chita Rivera

 

By Ron Fassler

 

If Chita Rivera isn’t a living legend, then who is? At eighty-six, she has been working primarily in the musical theatre for sixty-two years. The recipient of two Best Actress Tony Awards, with a special one voted for Lifetime Achievement, she and the late Julie Harris share the honor of being the most nominated actor or actress in the history of the Tonys (with ten). Having created the roles of Anita in West Side Story, Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie and the title role of The Kiss of the Spider Woman, she has worked with nearly all of the greatest powerhouses of the last half of the twentieth century in the American Theatre: Jerome Robbins, Harold Prince, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, John Kander and Fred Ebb and many more.

It’s exciting to report then that seeing her live at Feinstein’s/54 Below was a lesson in show-womanship. For eighty minutes, she strutted about the tiny stage, barely big enough to fit her constant movement as well as her unbridled enthusiasm for performing. Her energy and thrill of being present (in the best sense of the word) was intoxicating. Backed by a terrific trio, which included Gary Adler (piano), Jim Donica (bass) and Eric Poland (drums), the songs were brought wonderfully to life with cheeky and cheerful fun.

Chita Rivera was one of those lucky few to break out of the chorus and become a full-fledged star. But that sense of being part of the whole is still very much in her bones, even when standing on stage all alone and in the spotlight. She’s a giver. It was even apparent when taking her final bow, reaching out to members of the audience and holding their hands. It wasn’t obligatory, it was her pleasure. And the way she made eye contact with each person was beautiful to behold. That special quality is one of the reasons she has endured, much beloved in the theatre community, that rightly has elevated her to the status of something of a queen (her performance as a wicked one in 1982’s Broadway musical Merlin, notwithstanding).

 

Lisa Mordente

 

Opening to the strains of “Nowadays” from Chicago (“It’s good, isn’t it grand? Isn’t it great? Isn’t it swell? Isn’t it fun? Nowadays”), she transitioned into “A Lot of Livin’ To Do” from Bye Bye Birdie, and even if that wasn’t her song in that show, she made it distinctively her own. Other highlights included medleys from West Side Story and Kiss of the Spider Woman, “Carousel” (Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris), “I Don’t Remember You” (The Happy Time) and some of her signature songs from Chicago, “All That Jazz” and “Class,” the comedy duet which had her singing alongside her daughter, Lisa Mordente.

At times, Ms. Rivera almost seemed drunk on the applause and from being under the hot lights. The stage is where she lives, and the theatrical profession is one of the very few in which retirement is never mandatory. As long as she can still deliver the goods, there will always be a willing crowd ready to pay for the privilege of spending time with her while she dazzles us in a way that only she can.

 

Opening Night: Lisa Mordente, Ben Vereen, Chita Rivera

 

2d Night: Post show with Lisa Mordente, Brenda Vaccaro, Chita and Tyne Daly (Photo: Sandi Durell)

 

Early in the evening, she told a wonderful story about the time when she was asked by Bob Fosse to take on the role created by his wife, the multi-talented Gwen Verdon, in the national tour of Sweet Charity. “I said, ‘I don’t think I could ever step in the shoes of Gwen Verdon.’ But a little angel on my shoulder told me ‘You don’t have to step into her shoes. You can bring your own shoes.’ And that’s what I always say to the kids: Be on time, be ready and bring your own shoes.”

Photos: Maryann Lopinto

 

Chita Rivera is performing at Feinstein’s/54 Below through October 16th. Be on time, be ready and bring your own shoes.

 

 

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