Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why you should've skipped the Oscars (Chita Rivera)

Less than an hour ago, I was watching one of the great theatrical shows of my 50-year playgoing experience, as 82-year-old Chita Rivera and a three-piece band did a set at McGlohon Theater. To see her in action -- an opportunity I doubt Charlotteans will have again -- was to get a masterclass in how to hold an audience. She even did "Nowadays" from "Chicago," singing both her part and original co-star Gwen Verdon's. (She does a fine impression of Verdon.) As a refresher, here's what they looked like together on "The Mike Douglas Show," circa 1975:

Every performer has an ego; otherwise, none would get onstage. But the difference between Rivera and Jerry Lewis or Carol Channing (both of whom I saw in musicals in their 70s) is that she pours her energy into characters. Her memories are about her luck in having John Kander write "All That Jazz" for her or give her a great role as a weary mother in "The Rink." She didn't mention the Tony she won for the latter; in fact, she didn't mention a single award or accolade from any part of her career.

When I interviewed her a couple of weeks ago, she said she has always defined herself as a dancer. Perhaps that explains her work ethic and her outlook: Even great dancers usually take back seats to choreographers and, in musical theater, to directors and composers. We love them less for their personalities than their skill sets.

And she still has a skill set, more than six decades after her career began. She maximizes the physical and vocal ranges left to her and uses her face and upper body to convey details. She interacts cleverly with her talented trio: percussionist/music director Michael Croiter, bassist Jim Donica and pianist Michael Patrick Walker (yes, one of the composer-lyricists of "Altar Boyz"). She sings "Carousel" (from "Jacques Brel") almost without moving her lower torso and casts a spell.

She's magnetic and funny and has a rare star quality, the kind that doesn't say "Love me" or even "Look at me" but "Let me recreate great places I've been and great stuff I've been a part of along the way." If you skipped this show to watch Hollywood's orgy of self-congratulation tonight, you made the biggest error of the current arts season.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the positive review. It was a wonderful show. Hated to see a great performer play Charlotte to a half-full small theater.

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