Among the many skills Chita Rivera has acquired in her half-century on Broadway is the ability to keep her dignity amid mediocrity. So no one need worry about what’ll happen to her in the wake of Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life. The show, with a script by Terrence McNally, turns the story of her life and career into a kind of meta-musical, with biography giving way to a mix of new and revived songs. At times it’s artful; of course, a sock puppet could fashion a winning score from the hits of West Side Story, Chicago, and other classics.
Like Billy Crystal in his one-man show, Rivera spends much of the evening playing rope-a-dope with her sense of modesty. The aw-shucks gypsy shtick of the early scenes yields in the end, as it must, to a lyric declaring her a woman the world has never seen. This is grating, even if it’s true. Her description of the ways in which various legendary choreographers worked, as dancers demonstrate their styles behind her (they scroll across the stage in silhouette, like an iPod ad without the iPod), is Broadway history told by one of its principals. No one capable of such a segment needs heavy-handed lyrics to assert her greatness, and the finale proves that even at 72, she’s got game all her own. In All That Jazz, which she introduced in Chicago 30 years ago, she’s at once demure and fearsome, a cool fire. I look forward to seeing her in an actual musical again soon.