Forgetting Our Troubles, for a Little While

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Chita Rivera at Carnegie Hall, Nov 7th, 2016. Photograph by KOITZ.

The great Chita Rivera has left us and Broadway but we have the column that Denis Ferrera writing for Liz Smith has left us celebrating her presence and now especially her memory. Enjoy the thought of her …

November 9, 2016: “HELLO, thank you, and … welcome to Carnegie Hall.”

Those were Chita Rivera’s first words after she took the stage on Monday night, a tiny, but somehow massive flame, in short, glittering red.

Chita’s “welcome to Carnegie Hall” followed the riotous standing ovation that was her triumph right there.  It was the way she said it, that sly, slight pause before “welcome.”  It was almost as if the legendary Miss Rivera was opening the place to the public for the first time, rather than, at an astonishingly vibrant 83, making her own, at-long-last solo appearance there.

The last time I saw Chita onstage was the closing night of “The Visit” which had visited Broadway briefly but brilliantly last season. (Her performance earned her a 10th Tony nomination.)

The role of an embittered, maimed, cane-supported billionaires, bent on revenge, didn’t afford Chita much of an opportunity to kick up her heels.  Indeed, it might have been assumed that such a role was perfect for a lady over eighty, who’d been dancing for decades.

All that practice paid off!

Oh, how very wrong you are, if you thought that. Chita’s one-night-only stint at Carnegie Hall, was all flash and movement and legs and rapid fire unmistakable Fosse gestures. Sure, there was sentiment and drama and a few amusing concessions to what her birth certificate insists. (“For years I’ve been operating under the assumption I am 35!”  At another point, she threw back her face — still a miracle of enduring bone structure and declared, “I face the wind, now!”)

But let me tell you, there was plenty of good old S-E-X up there onstage. And when one of Chita’s “co stars” that night, Andy Karl, who had joined her for “A Lot of Livin’ To Do” burst out with: “Is she not the sexiest woman in the world?”  the audience roared back with a resounding “YES!”

CHITA’s act, titled “Nowadays” was chiefly a collection of songs from her own repertoire, her own career — “Chicago,” “Sweet Charity,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “West Side Story,” “The Rink,” “Bye Bye Birdie.” (True, Chita did not sing “Where Am I Going” from the screen version of “Sweet Charity” — that was Shirley MacLaine’s number. But she gave it an interpretation that was hers and hers alone.)

She also performed an astonishing version of Jacques Brel’s “Carousel.”  That was one of the numerous moments in the show that seemed fittingly climactic — surely she had reached her emotional peak?  But no, like good sex, Chita’s show, directed by the great Graciela Daniele, was, you know — multi orgasmic.

Chita with Andy Karl.

The lady received “assistance” from the above-mentioned Andy Karl (he starred the stage version of “Rocky” from several seasons back), Alan Cumming, Steve Van Zandt, and Javier Munoz. (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant replacement in “Hamilton.”)

They were all terrific, but nothing could compare, nobody could compete with the life force that is Chita.  She is a joyful performer.  Not just deeply committed to her work, the art.  But infused with the pleasure of work, her happy astonishment that she’s still here and not hanging on by a thread, either.

Chita and Alan Cumming.
Chita accompanied by Stevie Van Zandt.
Chita with Javier Munoz.

She is one of the realest, least phony, down-to-earth stars I have ever known.  Sometimes that translates onto stage or screen. Sometimes not. With Chita, the good person she is pours out. If she was only half as talented as she is, she would still be a great star, because she has a great soul. But, lucky us, she has more talent in that wickedly petite body than she knows what to do with.  Wait, wrong.  She does know what to do with it. I just wish her “Nowadays” show was running every night.

I hope it was filmed. I hope it was recorded (legally.) If for nothing else but her great ballad, “Love and Love Alone” from Kander and Ebb’s “The Visit.”  When I saw that show, twice, I was so taken with this number, sung with such bitter, melancholy resignation, in character as the tragic/triumphant Claire Zachanassian. (“When tomorrow’s come, and your heart is stone/what has made it numb, love and love alone.”) But Chita’s rendition Monday night added an exquisite new gloss of loss.

Chita’s performance with her ‘entourage’ from “The Visit”: James Harms, Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer.

EVEN THOUGH it was the night before the election, “Nowadays” was blessedly free of politics.  Except, well — there was “Somewhere,” the soaring Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim composition about acceptance, from “West Side Story.”

Chita, partnered with Andy Karl and Javier Munoz, remarked simply, “This song has as much resonance now, if not more, than it did 59 years ago.”  They sang the first few bars, and were then joined, onstage and in the aisles of Carnegie Hall, by the New York Gay Men’s Chorus.

The New York City Gay Men’s Chorus took the stage with Andy Karl and Javier Muñoz singing “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

The emotion quotient was sky high. No names had to be named. No causes promoted. No policies politicked. The audience was awash in tears, and so too were the singers.

If you weren’t rung out before that, “Somewhere” was the scrape-em’-up-off-the-floor moment.

But wait, there was more. (Yep, I thought it was over.) Chita came back with sizzling versions of “Nowadays” and “All That Jazz” that seemed as fresh and wicked as when Chita and Gwen Verdon did it for the first time, back in 1975.

Chita with her long-time musicians before the show: Chita, Michael Croiter (her music director), Michael Patrick Walker (Associate Music Director), and Jim Donica (Bass). They were part of the 15-piece band conducted by Croiter.

To paraphrase the lyrics of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, I can’t give you anything but raves, baby!

Chita, I speak only for myself, but you made me forget, in one night, for a couple of hours, the fearsome tension and stress that has enveloped me and millions of others this horrible year.  It was a gift, a mitzvah even.

A million blessings for who you are, what you are, and that you keep on keeping on, in the most encouraging way!

Photograph by Joe Sinnott/WNET.

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