Rivera Revered

Rivera Revered If there's any doubt in your mind that the sublime Chita Rivera is Broadway royalty, a trip to see Nine should clear things up
Chita Rivera in Nine.
Chita Rivera in Nine. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, clad in black from head to toe — turban, top and running pants — gives a wicked smile upon being reminded that the next day she will be up onstage at the Hudson Theatre, five blocks south of this one, the Eugene O'Neill, being handed the 2003 TDF/Astaire Lifetime Achievement Award.

"Does this mean it's all over? Are you trying to tell me something?" says the fireball Liliane la Fleur of Nine. Not bloody likely.

Liliane la Fleur is the hard-driving, soft-at-the-feminine-core movie producer who tries to keep cinematic genius Guido Contini, with all his women problems and his blocked creativity, firmly on track. Not an easy job, particularly when this Guido Contini, who can make any woman melt on sight, is sensitively played and splendidly sung by Antonio Banderas.

Indeed, it was the two words "Antonio Banderas" that swept away Ms. Rivera's initial resistance to appearing in this rebirth of a Broadway musical that had a big-hit, two-year run two decades ago. Chita Rivera originates Broadway roles — Anita in West Side Story, Rose in Bye Bye Birdie, Anna in The Rink, Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman; she doesn't follow in anyone's footsteps. Not with those feet, and what they're attached to.

But now, between shows, she doesn't say that. She says: "I was in L. A. doing The House of Bernarda Alba at the Mark Taper Forum, when I got a call from my agency, asking would I be interested in playing this role in Nine. Really, I wasn't. Then I heard that Antonio Banderas was in it. And I had also heard that David Leveaux, a very interesting, creative director, wanted to see me. So one afternoon I took off and met him. I was bowled over. I suddenly listened to my little angel saying, 'Oh, this might be good!'" Now that she is working with Banderas, Chita Rivera, "the ultimate pro," as the Times puts it, has this to say about the only grown man in Nine: "Antonio Banderas is an extraordinary, professional person in his dedication, passion and creative juices, all going on at the same time. It's awesome to see. When you've been in the business as long as I have, you see some people who are not working seriously, not respecting that space out there, the audience. But this man is 200 percent genuine, absolutely."

She stops, crosses her arms, braces her elbows and says, "But I like the person also, the private person." With tenderness: "I looked at him just today during a press junket [when actors make nice to a horde from the press]. There he was, in his little Nine cap and his Nine T-shirt. So now he's here, on Broadway. And he [was] up for a Tony!"

Yes, and so were you, Ms. Rivera — "Yeah, I think you're going to have to shoot me in the leg" — in a category with two of your co-stars, Mary Stuart Masterson (the wife) and Jane Krakowski (the sexpot), who last month took home the coveted prize for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

With an affirmative nod: "But I've got my two" — Tonys, that is, for her performances in The Rink (1984) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) — "on my breakfront at home."

Nine was developed by Maury Yeston, Arthur Kopit and Mario Fratti, who as a young reporter had observed director Federico Fellini on the set of "8 1/2", the semi-autobiographical film masterpiece on which Nine is based.

Yes, Ms. Rivera saw the original Tommy Tune production of Nine — "it was wonderful, and Liliane Montevecchi [as Liliane La Fleur] was wonderful" — and yes, she saw "8 1/2", once long ago and again recently. "I loved it. I've always been a huge Mastroianni fan, and when I knew I was going to do this show, I decided to watch it again. In the film the producer is a man — a man in black — totally unlike the person I play."

Come to that, the character you play here, Ms. Rivera, is pretty far removed from Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

"Well," she says, "the Spider Woman was the fantasy of a beautiful young man [played by Brent Carver, with whom she unforgettably tangoed, as, bringing down the house, she does again these nights with Banderas]. But both those characters, those two women, are glamorous, are sensual, are strong...."

Sounds like a good definition of Chita Rivera.

"Great!" she says. "I'll take it." So will we.

Antonio Banderas and Chita Rivera
Antonio Banderas and Chita Rivera