'Spider Woman' is filled with challenges, but Chita Rivera is caught up in the web Living it up: In a tough, rewarding role, Tony Award-winning actress slides easily between grim reaper, comedian and ethereal movie star in 'Kiss.'

November 07, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Chita Rivera is a dancer who gets a kick out of life -- even when life kicks back.

A positive attitude is a handy thing to have when you're playing a character who represents death. That's been Rivera's lot for more than three years as the title character in the musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman," which opens tomorrow at the Mechanic Theatre.

Rivera, who won her second Tony Award for "Spider Woman," admits that when she's perched high in the Spider Woman's giant web, she often feels the presence of the many friends she's lost over the years.

At those times, she says, it helps that her grim reaper character is not only warm and kind, but beautiful, thanks to the glamorous costumes designed by Florence Klotz. A further help is that she's "always been fascinated with death and the life after."

Portraying death isn't the only challenge Rivera faces in this show, which has a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and a book by Terrence McNally. The Spider Woman is just one facet of her larger character, Aurora, a 1940s movie musical star.

The catch is that Aurora isn't a flesh-and-blood character; she exists only in the mind of a homosexual window dresser who summons up memories of her movies to escape the squalor of his Latin American prison cell.

As the window dresser relates Aurora's movies to his recalcitrant cellmate, Rivera acts them out in elaborate production numbers in which she appears in guises reminiscent of movie legends ranging from a tailored Marlene Dietrich to a be-feathered Josephine Baker.

An additional complication is that, though Aurora has more than a half-dozen big, splashy musical numbers, she has few spoken lines.

Rivera acknowledges that because of these unusual requirements, the role took some getting used to.

Now, however, the 62-year-old dancer -- who first made her mark as the original Anita in "West Side Story" -- says Aurora "makes me feel comfortable. I feel I'm right where I belong. It's the maturity of her, the glamour, the elegance, the emotional passion that I can tap into myself."

One reason for her high comfort level, she says, is that the show's creators "know me better than I know myself."

Rivera wasn't in on "Spider Woman's" original incarnation, whose quick demise was blamed on premature reviews during a short-lived new-musicals program in Purchase, N.Y.

When she joined the revamped show in Toronto, she was pleased to find that "they actually added this humorous movie for me to do because it's a large side of me. If it was left to me, I'd be doing pratfalls and slapstick."

Lyricist Ebb, who describes Rivera as his best friend, is effusive in his praise of the star, whose Kander and Ebb credits began more than 25 years ago with the national tour of "Zorba" and also include starring roles in "Chicago" and "The Rink" (Rivera's first Tony).

"The fact is, when you ask someone to sing beautifully, dance beautifully and act wonderfully, there's maybe a handful of people in the theatrical profession who can handle all that. Chita not only does it, she makes it look easy," Ebb says.

Playwright McNally agrees. "She is the complete theater person. She does everything. I can't say how high this esteem in which I hold her is," he says, adding that he has a new non-musical play in mind for her. This sounds like a mutual admiration society. And Rivera confirms it by saying, "Any time they would ask me to do it, I would really jump."

In at least one instance, she tried to jump even higher than they asked. Climbing the Spider Woman's enormous web rekindled Rivera's childhood tomboy instincts. "I said, 'Let me climb it, absolutely.' They kept saying, 'Don't go so high.' I kept saying, 'Let me go higher.' "

This feat -- along with her dancing -- is all the more impressive considering that she does it with a dozen screws in her left leg, the result of a 1986 car accident. A year and a half after the accident, she unexpectedly re-encountered the driver of the taxi that ran into her car.

She was shopping for a new car for her daughter at the time, and the former cab driver turned out to be one of the salesmen in the show room. At first she was reluctant to see him again, but once they talked, she says, "I was able to tie that up in a wonderful bow for him and for me. I could see he was not driving a cab anymore. He had a wonderful job, and he could see that the person whom he hit with the cab was fine. It was really like a gift God gave me to be confronted with the past and put a happy ending to it."

The car accident hasn't been Rivera's only orthopedic problem. During "Spider Woman's" Montreal engagement, she fell backstage. When the show reached Chicago, she tore the cartilage in her knee, leading to surgery and a month's recuperation.

But now she's back at full steam and committed to eight more months on tour. Though touring can't be easy, she feels there are rewards. When she's in Baltimore, she's especially looking forward to seeing her sister, Carmen Wilson, who lives outside of Washington, where Rivera was born. Still, this is the longest she's ever played a single role. She's doing it because she believes in the significance of "Spider Woman."

"It's a story about love and friendship and compassion and courage, and about how if we get to know one another, we can certainly understand one another and gain from each other so much more," Rivera says. "I think the message is really important."

'Kiss of the Spider Woman'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: Tomorrow through Nov. 19; 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12; matinees 2 p.m. Nov. 9, 11, 12, 15, 18, 19

Tickets: $35-$57.50

Call: (410) 625-1400

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