Chita Rivera

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Chita Rivera

Feinstein’s/54 Below, NYC, March 14, 2018

Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes

Chita Rivera
Photo: Maryann Lopinto

By any measure, actress/singer/dancer Chita Rivera (Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero) has had a remarkable career. Beginning with a touring company of Call Me Madam at age 18, the artist went on to originate seminal roles in musical theater and film. A devoted crowd at Feinstein’s/54 Below has its own deeply etched memories. The lady in red is greeted loudly and at length.

Looking fabulous, exuding warmth and spirit, Rivera offers songs from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Sweet Charity, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and five shows with Kander & Ebb scores: The Happy Time, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink, The Visit, and Chicago.

“Two jazz songs” precede: a bass-centric, utterly sincere “I’m Old Fashioned” (Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer) and “Not Exactly Paris” (Michael Leonard/Russell George), sung with a shrug of resigned recollection and a few neatly embedded lines of “I Thought About You.”

When Rivera takes it down, the actress emerges more clearly. To my mind, tonight’s highlight is the tandem “Winter Love” and “Love and Love Alone” from The Visit. You don’t need to know her long history with the piece to understand the depth of its personal importance. “When you’re young/Feeling oh so strong/What can prove you wrong?/Love, and love alone….” Evocative parlando wrenches up from experience. The songs are raw, tender, honest.

“I’m so Catholic. I love to tell everything. I remember my phone rang and it was Cy Coleman, Bob Fosse, and Gwen Verdon—this is a call you take! I have two angels. That night, one of them said to me, ‘Who do you think you are that you can step into the shoes of the great Gwen Verdon?'” And my other angel said, “You  can if you bring your own shoes.” “Where Am I Going?” (Coleman/ Dorothy Fields) arrives with pith and prayer. Rivera turns her back between verses as if gathering herself and ends fists raised.

“Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” (The Rink) gives the vocalist a chance to showcase comedic skill. Here she’s light, bright, and gleefully mugging. A signature move of looking over her shoulder is well employed as she creates characters.

This is fun.

Rivera’s voice is gritty, octaves are lower, snap comes a bit slower; she covers territory, but doesn’t really dance. During “Carousel” (Jacques Brel/Eric Blau), which begins as if sung by a wide-eyed child, the performer executes a rather wonderful arm ballet with as much power and wind as she would have invested doing kicks and splits. Hips pivot. She’s immersed.

In songs from Chicago, we react to the vamp for “All That Jazz” with homing instinct and a nice ‘n’ easy “Nowadays,” replete with hat and cane, leads us down the familiar path. Rivera does an affectionate imitation of Gwen Verdon who danced and sang beside her in the original production. She’s infectiously happy. 

The encore, Carol Hall’s “My Circle of Friends,” takes us aria da capo back to low key and meaningful. A lovely way to close.

As appealingly real as Chita Rivera is onstage, one might suggest a writer for patter which wanders too often without good aim.

I’m sure the stories are there to be mined.

The run continues through March 22.

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.