PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life: Top Hat, White Tie and Tales

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life: Top Hat, White Tie and Tales Am I being catty—or just prone to irony—to notice that Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life made its Broadway bow at the Schoenfeld Dec. 11—a.k.a. Rita Moreno's birthday?
Chita R; Terrence McNally; Barbara Cook; Dominick Dunne; Sara Gettelfinger; Tommy Tune; Brian F. O'Byrne & Heather Goldenhersh; Michael Ball; Brian Stokes Mitchell & Allyson Tucker; Daphne-Rubin Vega & Nilo Cruz; John Kander; Ben Vereen; Graciela Daniele.
Chita R; Terrence McNally; Barbara Cook; Dominick Dunne; Sara Gettelfinger; Tommy Tune; Brian F. O'Byrne & Heather Goldenhersh; Michael Ball; Brian Stokes Mitchell & Allyson Tucker; Daphne-Rubin Vega & Nilo Cruz; John Kander; Ben Vereen; Graciela Daniele. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

It will be recalled—and Chita reminds you in the show—that her Broadway breakthrough role of Anita in West Side Story went to Rita in the movie. When she got the news, she remembers, "I wanted to kill myself. When Rita got the Oscar for it, I wanted to kill Rita." And therein hangs an on-going Chita-Rita "feud" neither lady seems to participate in, but one still perpetuated in the deliciously malicious Forbidden Broadway satires.

When she was told whose birthday it was, hours later at the opening-night party, Chita Rivera just threw back her head and roared with delight. "I didn't know that," she admitted. "How cute is that? How cute is that? Happy birthday, Rita sister! Give her my love."

So Chita. This is a Teflon star—a seasoned soldier in the musical-theatre wars who has emerged miraculously without scars or axes to grind. Her two hour-and-20-minute hop, skip and jump through her last 53 years on the stage is a valentine to her profession and the people she worked with, two of whom she actually admits she didn't like. Such legendary cranks as Elaine Stritch and Jerome Robbins are nothing more than "scary" in Chita's book.

Truth to tell, the book is an as-told-to creation by Terrence McNally, who has already written two Tony-winning roles for her (The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman)—and [full disclosure] one for Rita (The Ritz), and he doesn't have any apology for the soft-focused selective recall. "I'm grateful for nice people," he said. "I don't think career stories just have to be gossipy or edgy or psycho-sour. Chita's not bitchy. When she had her automobile accident, the hospital said she had more flowers than anyone since Fulton J. Sheen had a heart attack. They were saying, `Send them to University Hospital. We can't take any more flowers.' They'd never seen such an outpouring of that. That was just strangers. Chita is truly adored. There are no bad Chita Rivera stories. There are some bad Terrence McNally stories, I'm sure, but there are never any bad Chita Rivera stories."

Who better, then, to put on the ritz for? All the usual first-night suspects were decked out in tuxes and such—the first real black-tie-and-no exceptions event of the theatre season—a homage to the lady and to the era she came from when formal attire was a given for glittering openings. She did her part to touch that era, and the audience responded in kind. The after-party at the cavernous Copacabana looked like a penguin convention, everyone freshly jazzed from the opening-night performance, with a live Latin band in loud sway.

And were the stars ever out! Barbara Cook, Spamalot's Sara Ramirez, Christopher Sieber and David Hyde Pierce, The Producers' Jim Bortelsman and Jai Rodriguez, Mario Vasquez, Dominick Dunne, Sweeney Todd's Mark Jacoby, Gregory Jbara and Sara Gettelfinger (across-the-street commuters from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Linda Evangelista, Tommy Tune (Houston-bound, along with Dee Hoty, in Doctor Dolittle), Celeste Holm, three out of four Doubt stars (Brian F. O'Bryne, Adriane Lenox and Heather Goldenhersh), all four Jersey Boys (John Lloyd Young, Christian Hoff, Daniel Reichard and Robert J. Spencer), The Woman in White's Michael Ball, The Color Purple's Rene Elise Goldsberry, Arlene Dahl and Marc Rosen, Sweet Charity choreographer Wayne Cilento, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Souvenir's Judy Kaye, Richard Thomas, record exec Clive Davis, Ted Sperling, Donna Murphy and Shawn Elliott, Rent's Anthony Rapp and Daphne-Rubin Vega, Charles Strouse, Seth Rudetsky (who cried three times), Audra McDonald, Phoebe Snow, Third's Jason Ritter, Jacques d'Amboise, Arthur Mitchell, John Kander, Wicked's Shoshana Bean and Ben Vereen, Jim Dale, Matthew Morrison and Howard McGillin, who did Chita's last three weeks of Spider Woman and is now Broadway's longest-running Phantom.

They were there to celebrate one of their own—the gal who went out there a raw kid in the chorus (in the 1952 Call Me Madam national tour) and came back an icon, racking up an eviable rep over the decades as a thoroughgoing pro beloved on both sides of the footlights.

At the top of the second act is a mini-master class in how she did it—a quite literal procession of the choreographic styles she has worn through the years (Jack Cole's, Peter Gennaro's, Jerome Robbins', Bob Fosse's). "I could have done so many of them," confessed Chita [Gower Champion and Michael Kidd come quickly to mind], "but you can only do a certain amount."

Choreographer-director Graciela Daniele staged these like her famous Ragtime parade, with the nine-member ensemble continuously flowing across the stage in silhouette demonstrating the moves while Chita comments on how each choreographer signed his work. Superb lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer heightened the effect.

This is the sixth show that Daniele and Fisher have done together. They met doing a Rivera show—the original Chicago (he was the lighting designer, and she played the doomed Hungarian)—and subsequent married. "The parade was Graci's idea," he said, "and Peggy Eisenhower executed it brilliantly. She's the creative one." With this out of the way, Fisher hops the next plane to Los Angeles. "Peggy and I are lighting the Dreamgirls movie. It's our third film. We did it for Chicago and for The Producers."

Jersey Boy John Lloyd Young, a surefire Tony contender for his Frankie Valli performance, grooved to this portion of the program. "It was like a fascinating lesson in the history of Broadway choreographers. A lot of Jersey Boys for me has been my own personal edification for choreography, because I had never danced before. Sergio Trujillo is like a real mentor. So my appreciation for that whole world has grown exponentially."

Typical was Tovah Feldshuh's response: "This is a flawless piece of theatre history, and that's why it should be preserved and seen. Critics may say what they want—they may have peccadilloes about certain artistic choices, which is their right—but they can't have one complaint about the historic import of this piece and this actor's ability to report it, still in the prime of her talent. That's a very rare thing. She's able to talk about her extraordinary life and execute it with such excellence."

Bebe Neuwirth, who had the great good luck to win Tonys in Rivera roles (Sweet Charity—Rivera did the movie version—and Chicago), was babbling sweet nothings like everyone else. "What words can you use?" she pondered, picking up "flawless" and "blissful" and "perfection" before pressing on. "I'm so grateful she's doing this. It's so important. You don't have to be a theatre buff to love this show because she is the best that a human can be, and she will, through her joy, open up your own joy. For someone who's in the theatre—and especially a dancer—it's mandatory. What she is doing is the best that it can be."

Equally moved was Betsy Palmer, who looked slightly stunning in a long, slinky Bob Mackie gown that untold nuns probably went blind beading. She thought it "divine—and I mean that in the best sense of the word. This woman showed us her heart, and we wept. For those of us who have been in the business so many years, her joy and enthusiasm brought us all to life again. She made us so glad we're performers."

Hunter Foster, who's Leo Bloom in The Producers till the end of January, and the wife he met in Urinetown, Jennifer Cody, who's "Poopsie" in the upcoming Pajama Game, counted themselves among the evening's most contented customers. "I thought she was amazing 13 years ago when I saw Spider Woman," he said, "and she's still amazing. Ageless!"

"Amazing" was Jonathan Pryce's verdict as well. He replaces John Lithgow in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Jan. 17—and even resembles him a bit. "We've been friends since we did Comedians" (the 1977 seriocomedy that won Pryce the featured actor Tony).

Musically, the show taps into some of the abiding standards that have been major stops in her career—evergreens from Can-Can to Mr. Wonderful to Bye Bye Birdie et al—and rounding out the story of her life a little more are a couple of custom-fitted numbers by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns: "Dancing on the Kitchen Table," which peeks in on her roiling domestic upbringing; and "A Woman the World Has Never Seen," which examines the roles she has played.

"Both songs actually came from interviews we did with Chita," Flaherty explained. "We said, 'Tell us about your family,' and she told us all these anecdotes. She said, 'My first gig was the kitchen table.' I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'At dinner time, we would all gather together, and I would dance and perform for my family. One night, finally, the table actually broke.' The concept of the second number came from Graciela. She said, 'I think there's something interesting about the relationship of an actress with the characters she has played,' so we sat down with Chita. We said, 'Tell us about Velma.' She told us all of her thoughts about the different characters and the different entrances, and what she thought about each character she played. And then we fashioned the number around the interview."

Two brothers and three sisters (including Lola Rivera, the Cabaret hostess at Danny's Skyline Room) were present from her real family, and endless representatives from her theatre family. You couldn't swing a cat without striking a co-star of some kind from, say, Sweet Charity (Ben Vereen, Eric Lamartiniere) or West Side Story (Alan Johnson, Harvey Evans, Genii Prior, Liane Plane and even her ex, Tony Mordente).

Their daughter, Lisa Mordente, came in from California. "I live on the West Coast now, much to her chagrin," she said, "but I'll be back here to start a musical-theatre workshop for kids. I want them to know who Jack Cole is and Jerome Robbins. We're going to teach vocal exercises and audition pieces. We'll start it here, then go all over the country." The evening was quite special for her, she said. "When I was growing up and Mom was doing a show, we would have dinner at home at 4:30—placemats, no TV, just life. Then at 7:30, half-hour and it's Chita Rivera. So I was able to differentiate between the two. What happened tonight with this show was the two worlds blended for me for the first time."

Two snazzy fedoras with a button declaring "I Just Saw Chita!" decorated the individual tables around the room, but not all the guests could bring them off with real elan. Jamie DeRoy and Jim Caruso had the best luck with this, but the show's producer, Marty Bell, seemed a tad miscast. "Really?" he said, taken aback, "Most people tell me I'm right out of Guys and Dolls. Or The Godfather. I'm probably a scam artist from way back."

Needless to add, he's proud of his latest Bell-ringer. "The show was so much about passion, about how much Terrence and Graci and Chita and I love that whole era of the musical in the '50s. I got them all together. If you go through the whole lovely history, starting with Graci dancing in the Ballet de Monte Carlo and going to Paris on her day off and seeing West Side Story and getting on a plane the next week to come here. And you follow this through Graci, Terrence, Chita, me—we've all done a dozen shows together. We've had this incredible interrelationship, so it was natural that we would get together."

First and last, it's Chita's life and Chita's story and Chita's show. Daniele has staged it in a way that makes it seem she never leaves the stage, which, said the director, is not an illusion. "She's off stage for the intermission. In the first act, she goes off at the end of 'Gypsy Life' for about five seconds to drink some water, then for about ten seconds to put a skirt on for West Side Story, and about ten seconds at the end of West Side Story to take off the skirt. And that's it. That is it."

It's a stunning superwoman performance, even if you didn't know she was turning 73 next month, so you just have to ask her how she does it. "It's about spirit and if you feel you really believe in what you're doing," she insisted. "All of these people who have been in my life—these are people who deserve to be talked about. When you talk about them, it gives you more life. It gives you more energy—it really does—I'm so proud of this piece."

Chita Rivera and several of the cast members give their opening night curtain call.
Chita Rivera and several of the cast members give their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben