Cheering for Chita

It’s always fun when Chita Rivera is back in town. She lights up the place like the Rockefeller Center tree. Now in her third solo outing at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, she insists she won’t dance, but you can bet what’s left of your stock portfolio she never stops moving, and the beat is in sync with her heart. At 75, she’s still everybody’s favorite Latin from Manhattan.

She even came dressed to move. Wearing a fire-engine-red ruffled shimmy dress with matching red earrings, she can still transform a simple turn into a shuffle ball chain. Give her a Brazilian bossa nova and just get out of the way. And in this entrancing show, she leaves no tempo unexplored. Chita! The name alone conjures images of chili peppers and pizzazz, and she still delivers plenty of both—plus energy, passion and the kind of 40-carat showmanship they don’t teach in dancing school. She has stopped more Broadway shows than just about any musical star occupying the same galaxy, and now that she’s broadened her horizons to conquer the nightclub world, she’s sharing her tricks with more intimate audiences who cheer even louder. There’s a lot to cheer about, not the least of which is her rugged, always-smiling, leave-’em-wanting-more resolve that comes from years—no, decades—of ambition, experience, hard work and getting it right. There is what the Broadway gypsies call flop sweat, but her mantra seems to be “throw her a towel and move on.”

From Brazilian candy like “Sweet Happy Life” to a haunting Kander and Ebb ballad like “Love and Love Alone” (from the score of Chita’s forthcoming musical The Visit), she covers every emotion, wrapping the audience in her arms with Carol Hall’s “Circle of Friends” and moving us to tears with the wordly-wise honesty of “Not Exactly Paris,” Michael Leonard’s brilliant hymn to the kind of love you still remember long after it’s over. There are many highlights in Chita’s repertoire, and no low, time-wasting valleys—but the Kilimanjaro of this high-wire act is a cleverly constructed career overview in the form of a tribute to the varied and complicated women she’s played: Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie (“Put on a Happy Face”), Liza Minnelli’s mother in The Rink (“Chief Cook and Bottle Washer”), the whores in Seventh Heaven (“Camille, Collette, Fifi”), Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Anita in West Side Story (“A Boy Like That,” “America”), the title role in Sweet Charity (“Big Spender,” “Where Am I Going?”) and of course Velma in Chicago. (“I told Catherine Zeta-Jones, honey, you keep the Oscar—I’ll keep the vamp!”) And why not? She invented it. She’s forgotten more than most performers have even discovered yet. One of these decades, she may finally run out of steam, but like John O’Hara said when George Gershwin died, “I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” For now, the audience really gets it when she sings a stunning version of Kander and Ebb’s classic “Nowadays.” (“In fifty years or so, it’s gonna change, you know … but oh it’s heaven, nowadays.”) Chita Rivera is heaven nowadays, too—and always will be.

rreed@observer.com

Cheering for Chita