'One doesn't dance forever' Reprise: But Chita Rivera, at 65, shows no signs of stopping. She brings her "Chita & All That Jazz" autobiographical revue to the Lyric Opera House.

Theater

May 25, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A few years ago, Chita Rivera was asked to write her autobiography. "They wanted a tell-all book and that's not what I'm interested in," the two-time Tony Award winner said recently from Richmond, Va., where she was appearing in "Chita & All That Jazz." The revue opens a one-week run at the Lyric Opera House tomorrow.

"Chita & All That Jazz" is, in part, her substitute for an autobiography. "I was coming towards the end of 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' and I realized that one doesn't dance forever," said Rivera, 65, whose career would appear to disprove that statement. She won her second Tony at age 60 for her portrayal of the title character in "Spider Woman" (her first was for "The Rink").

"There are not many of us left around that have been able to be in a time when there were great shows and lots of history," explained this veteran of such Broadway classics as "West Side Story," "Chicago" and "Bye Bye Birdie." "This is a thank you to the theater and to the time and to the audiences. It's a thank-you evening."

Autobiographically speaking, besides reprising songs from some of her hits, the show also includes her comments on the 1986 car accident that nearly ended her dancing career.

"I always said I would never mention that, [but] people are interested. I say after the car accident, I was forced out of the light, but I got back in it," she said.

Despite its semi-autobiographical nature, "Chita & All That Jazz" doesn't go back as far as Rivera's childhood in Washington, where her Puerto Rican-born father was in the United States Navy Band. (She still has relatives in the Maryland suburbs).

"There's just not that much time.... We go back as far as 'Call Me Madam,'" she said, referring to her acting debut in the 1952 touring production. A trained classical ballerina, Rivera attended the audition with a fellow dancer from George Balanchine's School of American Ballet. Rivera was hired; her friend was not.

Within a year, Rivera made her Broadway debut dancing in "Guys and Dolls." A quarter century later, she is still a fixture on Broadway, where she hopes "Chita & All That Jazz" will open next season.

Rivera didn't create the revue for want of other offers. Among the opportunities she turned down was the chance to replace Ann Reinking in the revival of "Chicago."

"Once you've been where I've been you don't want to go back. That's a different show," said Rivera, who was Velma in the original "Chicago." Earlier this spring she participated in a star-studded reading of Jerry Herman's "Dear World," his 1969 musical based on "The Madwoman of Chaillot." "They were very excited about it. They want us to do another reading," she said.

But for now, except for a one-night concert version of "Sweet Charity" next month -- an AIDS benefit that will put her in the company of such other former Charities as Gwen Verdon and Debbie Allen -- most of Rivera's time is devoted to "Chita & All That Jazz."

In the show -- which was conceived by Fred Ebb and also includes material by Terrence McNally -- she is accompanied by an on-stage orchestra and six male dancers. Show times at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., are 8 p.m. tomorrow through Saturday and 7: 30 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $21-$42.50. Call 410-752-1200.

Don Juan and the devil

What was Don Juan like before his name became synonymous with "lothario"? In "Don Juan in Chicago," playwright David Ives suggests the Don was a scholar who believed "Life is too short to waste it on sex," and, in keeping with this philosophy, remained a virgin until the age of 30.

If this sounds like a departure from the legendary depiction of Don Juan, that's not the only difference in Ives' uneven comedy, which is receiving its Baltimore premiere at Fell's Point Corner Theatre.

The main change is that Ives has thrown in a large dose of Faust. Determined to be immortal so that he can study forever, Don Juan summons Mephistopheles. The devil is only too happy to oblige, but in exchange he requires Don Juan to seduce a different woman each day, without ever sleeping with the same woman twice.

Needless to say, this eventually takes all of Don Juan's time, and when we re-encounter him 400 years later in modern-day Chicago, he hasn't cracked a book in eons.

Though this premise is amusing, it would probably have worked better in shorter form, like the comic sketches in Ives' "All in the Timing," his anthology of short plays, which was winningly produced by this theater two seasons ago. Stretched out to two acts, "Don Juan in Chicago" wears thin, and the 1990s Chicago characters introduced in the second act cross the line from silly to ridiculous.

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