by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
Chita Rivera, The Dancer's Life --- All About Chita
The Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
236 West 45th Street
Buy "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life" Tickets
Reviewed February 1, 2006 by Margaret Croyden
Chita Rivera should have left well enough alone. I could understand her dilemma and sympathize with her. At the age of 72, she didn't want merely to be a memory. And since she had the pluck, the energy, and the amazing drive to get around on stage and dance, she wanted to do it. And she knew she could. That of course is to be admired. So I do admire her for her fortitude. But she should have chosen more wisely. True, she can still dance, in a limited way, and she can even sing and dance at the same time without losing her breath--all truly remarkable. But here's the problem. When you advertise your age and try to show you still have it, you become the object of a peeping-tom show. Every move is minutely examined, every dance step is watched to see if you can make it, every song is graded either "A" for effort, or "F" for failure. In other words, we are all too aware that we are watching a personal endeavor--a battle of sorts-- and so we concentrate not on the totality of the show, but on whether Chita Rivera, at her age, can still hoof it on stage. So each time she does a turn, the audience applauds, shouts, screams, and whoops it up. Hooray, she still has it, they seem to be saying: the whole evening becomes a contest.
Besides, there is a bigger problem. The script, if you want to call it that, by the noted playwright Terrence McNally, is a mess. The familiar formula, "and then I wrote" changed to "and then I danced" goes on for two tiresome hours. We never get to know anything about Chita Rivera, the individual. Either there is nothing interesting to know about her life, except that she appeared in many musicals, or she preferred not to get too deeply into anything. As a result, Ms. Rivera comes across as ordinary and prosaic--certainly not a personality whose life should, or could be dramatized. Whether McNally realized this when he was writing this non-story, is hard to tell, but this work certainly does him no justice. As they say, "what was he thinking?"
About the production. Ms. Rivera looks good, is made up well, has a superb body, and is wearing a becoming, flimsy dancer's garb. But she is surrounded by cheesy sets, and sleazy costumes for the young dancers, who are O.K. with what the ordinary choreographer, Graciela Daniele, has given them. Of course they had better not be better than the star. As for Chita's old numbers, maybe they should be forgotten, but the songs from "West Side Story" and the restaged Jerry Robbins dances still have energy. So does "Big Spender" from "Sweet Charity."
This kind of show appeals to those who love Broadway nostalgia, and can easily identify with a star who represents the will to go on forever. On the day I saw the show the audience obviously adored Chita. They laughed at all the right places, applauded all the numbers, and even hummed along, And you guessed it--there was the usual standing ovation. What would a show be without that? Be it a hit, a failure, or a bore--no matter-- New York audiences never disappoint. At the end, they always stand up.
Margaret Croyden's most recent book "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" is published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
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