Chita Rivera, a true Broadway legend, wowed a capacity audience at the Venetian Room as part of the Bay Area Cabaret Series. Photo by Laura Marie Duncan. Below: Rivera as Anita in West Side Story. Photo by Leo Koribbean. Bottom: Rivera with the songwriting team Kander and Ebb and Liza Minnelli. Photo by Martha Swope.
Last night I fell in love with a 77-year-old Broadway legend.
Actually, I started with a giant crush that developed during a recent phone interview with Chita Rivera (read the story in the San Francisco Chronicle here), and then that crush fell off the deep end when I saw her in person at the recently re-opened Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel as part of the Bay Area Cabaret series.
About 13 years ago, when I was the new theater guy at the Oakland Tribune/ANG Newspapers, I had the chance to interview Rivera in person at the Clift Hotel. She was launching a Broadway-bound autobiographical show called Chita & All That Jazz. On my way to the interview, I passed a flower stand, and on impulse, I bought her a gardenia. I knew that’s not what a seasoned professional would do, and my purpose wasn’t to butter her up – it was more about honoring her extraordinary career. To arrive empty handed felt like…not enough. When I sat down with her and gave her the flower, her eyes welled up, and the interview was wonderful. I got a big hug at the end, and I was happy.
The problem, a few weeks later, was the show. It was like a big cruise ship entertainment with a glossy spin on Rivera’s storied career. A legend deserves better. She tried again with The Dancer’s Life, another autobiographical show scaled to Broadway size. But it didn’t do as well as people had hoped. That’s when Rivera decided to scale it down for cabaret. She started at Michael Feinstein’s club in New York and has since taken it around the country. She works with a trio (because she thinks it’s sexy to be able to say, “And now I’d like to introduce you to my trio.”) and with bigger bands and orchestras. And the one-on-one aspect of the cabaret arrangement is a wonderful way to experience the Chita magic.
At the 380-seat Venetian, with a show called Chita Rivera: My Broadway, she was incandescent. She walked on stage (from the kitchen, which is how you do it at the Venetian) in a sparkly red dress and matching jacked. With her trio behind her, she launched into a medley of “I Won’t Dance” and “Let Me Sing.” Over the course of the 90-minute show, she would actually dance – maybe not full on choreography but just enough to let us know she’s still got the sharpest, sexiest moves around – and we would have let her sing all night if she had been willing.
Rivera exudes charm but doesn’t actively try to charm. Her expertly structured and scripted show seems casual and off the cuff. She’s warm and funny and dazzling in the most appealing show-biz way. She radiates Broadway pizzazz but comes across as a grounded gal you’d love to pal around with. That’s the kind of combination that let’s you get away with anything.
Not that Rivera takes advantage. We’re in the palm of her hand, but she never coasts. She takes us through highpoints (and a few low) of her career with stops along the way for her mega hits: West Side Story’s “A Boy Like That”/”America,” Sweet Charity’s “Where Am I Going?,” Bye Bye Birdie’s “Put on a Happy Face”/ “How Lovely to Be a Woman”/ “A Lot of Living to Do” and Kiss of the Spider Woman’s “Where You Are”/ “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Before launching into her signature tune, “All that Jazz” from Chicago, Rivera noted that when Rita Moreno played her role of Anita in the movie version of West Side Story and Catherine Zeta Jones played Velma Kelly in the movie of Chicago, both won Oscars. Rivera, a two-time Tony Award winner, said that was OK with her. “I’d rather get there first anyhow.”
Paying homage to her dear friends John Kander and Fred Ebb, she sang “Love and Love Alone” from the still-gestating musical The Visit and a wistful “I Don’t Remember You” from The Happy Time and “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink in which she starred opposite Liza Minnelli as her daughter.
Rivera’s voice these days is husky but expressive. She swings almost as well as she moves, and her rapport with the adoring audience is cabaret ecstasy.
Reminiscing about her experiences in San Francisco, Rivera said she first visited the city at age 17 when she was in a tour of Call Me Madam starring Elaine Stritch. She’s been back many times and still loves the city even though her tour of Kiss of the Spider Woman wasn’t the hit here that she had imagined. She came here as a well-trained musical theater neophyte and this weekend returned as theater royalty. She made a cabaret room feel like a Broadway stage and we were all up there with her doing high kicks in the spotlight.
That’s a great feeling, and it’s only something you can experience when a performer as talented and generous as Rivera opens her heart and lets you in.
Here’s a treat – Rivera singing Kander and Ebb’s “Love and Love Alone” from The Visit: