Her Broadway: Chita Rivera lights up the Venetian Room

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday October 26, 2010
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Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera, the star of legendary Broadway hits, returns to San Francisco to perform at the Venetian Room November 5. Rivera talked via telephone from her home in New York City. She had just flown in from Los Angeles the night before, but was as perky as our first meeting 20 years ago in Manhattan.

"I've been doing different versions of this kind of show for a few years," she said. "I like to keep busy. I'm pretty lucky to have come along at a great time for musicals in the theater. Fortunately, I was in a lot of those shows. I'm having a good time sharing my life."

And what a life it's been. Now 75, the Washington, D.C.-born Rivera was chosen for a scholarship to George Balanchine's School of American Ballet at age 15. In a story out of a Broadway chorus girl musical, Rivera snagged her first major musical role after accompanying a friend to an audition of Call Me Madame. Featured roles in Guys and Dolls, Sweet Charity (the film version as well) and Can-Can followed.

Chita Rivera in 'Wet Side Story/  

But most musical theater fans know Rivera for creating the role of Anita in the original production of West Side Story, and as Velma in the original production of Bob Fosse's Chicago. The 2003 revival of Nine garnered Rivera her eighth Tony Award nomination.

Rivera's Venetian Room show, My Broadway, includes songs from each of these classic musicals, and Rivera's interesting stories about working with the likes of Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Bob Fosse.

"It's a lot of fun to do a smaller show, tell stories, have a good time, and sing songs that bring back great memories."

One memorable event in her career involved the birth of his daughter Lisa, celebrated with her husband, Tony Mordente ("Action" in the film and musical West Side Story), in 1957, and notable as their child's birth delayed the opening of the London production of West Side Story.

Rivera won a 1993 Tony Award for her role as Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman. The show's tour played at the Orpheum Theatre, where the current touring production of West Side Story is now playing.

"I happen to think that next to West Side Story, Kiss of the Spider Woman is my favorite show," said Rivera. "I really wanted to bring that show out in this beautiful theatrical way. It was so brilliantly produced and created; the score and the book, the cast. I couldn't wait to get the show to San Francisco. I thought audiences would flip. They love the theater. It still amazes me that it wasn't well-received."

True, local critics didn't seem to appreciate the show. Rivera remains staunchly supportive of the work, as do its fans.

"It's a story about human difference, including a beautiful homosexual guy; they were different and forced to be together in a tiny cell, they grew to know and love each other."

Rivera is more self-deprecating of recent roles, like her cameo in the film version of the musical Chicago. "When they finished shooting my scene, everyone was very polite. I looked up and said, 'Are you telling me this is it?' When I saw it onscreen, I looked just like Cher in drag."

Chita Rivera  

Every little step
Dancing has become even more of a pop culture phenomenon since Rivera's Broadway days, including her autobiographical dance show, Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life (also Tony-nominated).

But Rivera sees problems with some aspects of its TV dance popularity.

"I'm a firm believer that you have to study. You have to get a technique. If you want two seconds of a spotlight, that's all you get, and get humiliated."

Rivera is speaking of Dancing with the Stars and other competition reality shows that portray what she sees as a warped perspective on the terpsichorean arts.

"I'm not a fan of the one guy on the panel [ballroom instructor Len Goodman] who feels he needs to insult the kids," she said. "You don't talk to people like that. The show has brought dance into the public, but the way it's done is upsetting. It's hard enough to have a Russian ballet instructor hit you with a stick, but that's in private."

"It's the young kids who get embarrassed," said Rivera. "Our whole society today seems to be about people getting humiliated or insulting each other. So, where's the theater? What these kids should know is that after such awful auditions, you still have to feel good about yourself."

Happy returns
Her life of auditions now a history, Rivera is happy to return to the Venetian Room. "When it was up and going, everybody played there." True, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and other music icons have performed at the luxurious hall.

"When I played that place years ago, I had two or three backup dancers," Rivera recalled. "It was a sensational act, choreographed by Ronn Field, who's since died."

As a survivor of numerous hip operations after a 1986 car accident in New York, Rivera, who amazingly danced for years afterward, is finally settling down to a more stationary act.

Rivera's show also changes according to venue, shifting from a trio to six pieces to 11 pieces. The Venetian Room show is with a trio. Her act was developed at the Manhattan Regency Room opened by pianist-singer Michael Feinstein.

Rivera also recently played The Rrazz Room, which she said was "fun, and a bit of a challenge. You can see and hear the audience, and that's great ... sometimes."  

Her continued success in stage shows mirrors decades of experience, and hard work. But Rivera also enjoys kicking back to enjoy her success. "What I wanna do is have fun, and share, and have a good time," she said. "You have to respect your audience. They're good enough to show up, care or be curious."

Chita Rivera performs 'My Broadway' at The Venetian Room, Friday, November 5, at 8 p.m. $60. Three-course dinners available for $40 plus tax and tips. www.bayareacabaret.org/|

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