The cheers for Chita started with the overture. By the time she had risen from the stage floor and stood front-and-center a few minutes later, the roar for her was deafening. Basked in a single spotlight, Chita Rivera owned the August Wilson Theatre and the hearts of the 1,300 sitting rapt before her. At that moment, Broadway belonged to Chita.
She charged through Chita: A Legendary Celebration, a sizzling evening of song and dance on October 7, 2013, slowed only by rapturous applause and six standing ovations. The one-night-only event included special performances by Tony Award winners Tommy Tune and Ben Vereen and a video tribute from legendary composer John Kander.
The evening, a celebration of Rivera’s 80th birthday that was produced by and benefited Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, raised a remarkable $413,660.
Commanding the stage for nearly two unstoppable hours and backed by a 15-piece onstage orchestra, Rivera recreated some of her most loved performances from 10 of her Broadway musicals including West Side Story, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Rink and Sweet Charity.
From the opening notes of the overture when trumpets heralded the iconic vamp of Kander and Ebb’s “All That Jazz,” to Rivera’s final encore, the affectionate “Circle of Friends” from her album And Now I Swing, the evening showcased an unstoppable talent that has been delighting audiences for decades.
“I had no idea celebrating my 100th birthday would be so much fun,” Rivera joked after a spirited opening number of “A Lot of Livin’ To Do” from Bye, Bye Birdie which left no doubt she wholeheartedly believed the lyrics.
Tune, a nine-time Tony Award-winning singer, dancer and choreographer, later serenaded Rivera with “Rosie” from the same show. Wearing coordinated cherry red outfits from head to toe, the pair joined for a touching soft-shoe, ending with a sweet embrace between the longtime friends.
Rivera also was joined onstage by consummate showman Ben Vereen, a Tony winner himself for the original Pippin. Perched on stools shoulder-to-shoulder, they performed a slyly humorous rendition of the charmingly crass song “Class” from Chicago.
This concert was not the first time Rivera had performed on the August Wilson Stage. In 1955, she created the role of “Fifi” in the short-lived musical Seventh Heaven, when the theater was called the ANTA Playhouse. Rivera revisited the gruff prostitute role she relished portraying with the help of two “Angels” from Broadway’s current Tony-winning musical Kinky Boots, Kyle Taylor Parker and Nathan Peck. The trio hilariously recreated the “Camille, Collette, Fifi” number from Seventh Heaven.
Filing the iconic set for Jersey Boys, the smash hit and resident show in the August Wilson, the onstage musicians performed at bandstands emblazoned with Rivera’s initials. At the overture’s climax, Rivera rose from under the stage, radiating in a trademark Chita-red fringed dress and matching heels.
Introducing a medley from West Side Story, Rivera told how she learned the music for the show while sitting nervously alongside legendary composer Leonard Bernstein in his home at his personal piano (and joked that all she could think about was not throwing up all over the maestro’s keyboard). She then lit up the theatre with two of her most renowned numbers from the landmark musical: “A Boy Like That” and “America.”
A cool and easy performance of “Where Am I Going” from Sweet Charity began quietly with Rivera perched alongside the onstage grand piano. The smoky rendition ended with her arms extended toward the rafters and dramatically reaching for the follow spot.
Expounding on her love of dance, Rivera then performed a medley of “Sweet Happy Life” and “Mas que Nada” from her recording And Now I Swing. The performance featured dancer Richard Amaro performing a sumptuous tango with Rivera.
Closing out the first half of the show, she gave a haunting performance of “Carousel” from Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The song began with Rivera accompanied by a simple and nostalgic piano with the strains of a violin filling the theatre. She performed the epic song first with cautious excitement before building to a climactic frenzy.
The second half of the performance paid tribute to the iconic writing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, Rivera’s long-time friends and frequent collaborators. Speaking of the duo, Rivera said, “How lucky can you get to have two amazing writers by your side who are also your best friends? I would not be where I am without those men.”
Following the heartfelt video tribute from Kander, where he called his relationship with Rivera “the definition of friendship,” she returned to the stage accompanied by several of her dancers from Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Dancer’s Life: Amaro, Brad Bradley, Lloyd Culbreath, Raymond Del Barrio, Robert Montano and Alex Sanchez.
Rivera and her cavalcade performed a medley of songs from Kiss of the Spider Woman: “Where You Are,” “Gimme Love” and the show’s title song. Kander noted in his video tribute that her role in the show was a perfect showcase for Rivera’s talents.
Rivera continued with a series of her signature songs from Kander and Ebb: a delicate rendition of “I Don’t Remember You” from The Happy Time, the brassy “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from her Tony Award-winning performance in The Rinkand “Love and Love Alone” from one of the final Kander and Ebb collaborations, The Visit.
Rivera honored the late Gwen Verdon, her friend and co-star in Chicago, with a spot-on impression of Verdon while performing “Nowadays,” complete with its signature choreography by Bob Fosse.
For her finale, Rivera performed the song perhaps most associated with her illustrious career, “All That Jazz” from Chicago. Remarking on the song’s memorable opening chords, Rivera told the audience, “I love that vamp. Everyone loves that vamp. But I love it because it’s my vamp.”
Before the close of the evening, Rivera express her gratitude to the audience saying, “I’ve lost so many of my friends to AIDS, thank you for coming, for caring, for sharing, for giving, because Broadway Cares really needs you and we must never forget that.”
Chita: A Legendary Celebration was directed by Graciela Daniele and written by Terrence McNally with music direction by Michael Croiter. Richard Hester served as production supervisor. The evening was sponsored by The New York Times and United Airlines.
Photos by Daniel Roberts and Monica Simoes