Easy to love when in the right role, Chita Rivera is equally easy to admire in general. Here, after all, is a lady of 70-plus, with 16 pins in her left leg from a mid-1990s car accident, and when she makes her entrance in the new show based on her life, she does a kick. She does it with the right leg, granted, but the principle of the thing is what counts: Chita wants you to know she is still a game gal. She may lack the flexibility of the youthful spitfire whose physical pizzazz enlivened West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, and Bajour!, but she still has a dancer’s chops, a dancer’s heart, and a dancer’s desire for you, watching her, to have a great time.
That last is what makes Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life
such a dismaying evening. We’d all love to have a great time in the theater, and Chita, sharing her memories and zipping through highlights of her career, generously does everything in her power to give us one. What gets in the way is her material—or rather, for much of the evening, her lack of material. Because almost everything’s presented in the past tense, the show has the effect of receding from the present. Chita herself, her brisk, go-getter personality of old enriched by a new suave knowingness, is as vivid a presence as you could want at the center of a musical show. But caught by Terrence McNally’s script in long strands of name-dropping reminiscence, or fussing in musical numbers over an image of her younger self (played by the appealing child dancer Liana Ortiz), she often seems less to be performing in the here and now than to be acting as an urbane guide to a museum tour of slightly musty exhibits from her past.
This, one realizes, was the wrong road for the show to take: Cherishing Chita’s past is something that those of us with long memories, or a good set of video clips, can do at home; to go to the theater is an expression of the desire to cherish Chita in the present. Which may be why the show’s two new songs, by Ahrens and Flaherty, one early on and one in the next-to-closing spot, produce a stronger effect than almost anything else in the evening. It’s not that they’re earth-shatteringly great songs in themselves, but that they put Chita’s recollections in a fresh frame, giving her a living present to stand in as she looks back on the past; when she sings them, she’s there with us in the theater, and her presence has the electric effect for which you go to a musical. The one other number that makes an equivalent success, interestingly, works this double time situation from the opposite angle: Chita, downstage, speaks for the past, reminiscing about the great choreographers she’s worked with, while upstage, in silhouette, a parade of dancers goes by, performing the moves we associate with Jack Cole, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, or Peter Gennaro. Here the movement’s alive in the present; framing it in memories gives its vitality an extra nostalgic charm, as if we were watching Chita introduce her young backup dancers to the great tradition she embodies.
New songs delivered by an old and beloved performer, old familiar routines made fresh by young executants: The two elements suggest a kind of show largely, and regrettably, absent from Broadway in the last few decades, and one for which quasi-biographical or -autobiographical shows like Chita’s (not to mention misguided excursions like Lennon and Jersey Boys) are a savorless substitute. I am speaking of the revue, a form that, as loosely structured extravaganza or as taut, fast, and funny intimate entertainment, has always been part of our musical-theater tradition. Revues could be built around themes, ideas, attitudes, or personalities. They often mixed beloved songs (and beloved stars) of earlier decades with their new material. What they rarely did was stay locked in somebody’s past; given their ability to range freely, they dived for the present, using the past as a little extra salt to the dish. Frankly, Chita’s life story—the story of a working artist who just kept on working—is less interesting than the presence of Chita herself. The elaborate elements with which it’s told—a cast of 14, new songs, a fair amount of scenery and elaborate lighting effects—invite the audience to expect something more than fleeting remarks about shows of the past. (Elaine Stritch’s autobiographical show At Liberty, in contrast, was really a solo drama about survival, illustrated with song and dance simply because the heroine happened to be a song-and-dance gal. Done on a bare stage, with no physical production elements except Stritch and a stool, it invited you to focus on her story alone.)
Why, I ask, couldn’t Chita be the star of a revue, with 12 new songs (by various young writing teams) instead of two, and with a few actors and singers mixed in among the dancers for sketches by McNally (a gifted hand with short comedy scenes) and others? In that context, if she wanted to introduce a dance parade paying tribute to her great choreographers or sing, as she does here, a number about the joy of taking on a new role, into which she interpolates favorite moments from her résumé, who could possibly object? Certainly not I; all I regret in the present situation is the absence of the rest of a good show. Hiring a star to drive your vehicle when you’ve forgotten to put on the wheels is no way to make things move forward.