By SHARON EBERSON
Chita Rivera entered coyly onto the Greer Cabaret stage Monday night, but the audience wasn’t having any of it. Fans stood, whistled and applauded for the musical theater great who rightfully calls her nightclub act A Legendary Celebration.
That word, “legend,” gets tossed about like so much overused hyperbole. But in this case, you have to punch it up a few notches to achieve Chita Rivera heights. And at 89, the woman in black with a pinch of glitter and an aura of greatness, arrived in Pittsburgh not about to rest on her laurels.
Through a 90-minute set, she rarely took a seat. Dancing like the Chita of Chicago, Sweet Charity and West Side Story isn’t in the cards today, of course. But that’s not to say she can’t move like a pro. When her legendary legs weren’t in sultry, Velma Kelly-esque motion, her arms and hands moved with balletic grace, more than a hint of Bob Fosse now and then, and a bit of Jerome Robbins‘ melding of dance to character, too.
There remains the aura of dazzling talent and outer sparkle that has served as a muse for some of musical theater’s greatest choreographers and songwriters.
For her well-honed cabaret, Chita – like Cher or Drake, one name will do – has mined more than 70 years of Broadway stardom and a who’s-who circle of friends to deliver golden nuggets of a life in musical theater.
She can talk about getting a call from composer John Kander, who invited her to hear a new song, and arriving to the first notes of “All That Jazz.” Or meeting Leonard Bernstein for the first time in his music room, in New York’s 19th-century Osbourne Building, just across the street from Carnegie Hall, and praying she wouldn’t throw up. She didn’t.
But one story in particular, that sums up her extraordinary life in showbiz, is the one she shares with new generations of performers.
Bob Fosse was on the phone – Chita notes that she can refer to him as “Bobby” now – asking her if she would like to replace Shirley MacLaine in the tour of Sweet Charity. Both the angel and devil on her shoulders told her she shouldn’t do it, which led her to words to live by.
Determined she wasn’t going to fill anyone else’s shoes, she decided that when opportunity knocks, “Be ready, and bring your own shoes.”
Chita pranced into Pittsburgh with songs from her hit Broadway shows, including “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” from Bye Bye Birdie and an opening medley from Kiss of the Spider Woman. Her first cabaret was put together by the lyricist Fred Ebb, who taught her that the third song should always be a slow song, and for this set she has chosen Kander & Ebb’s “I Don’t Remember You” from the 1967 musical The Happy Time.
For “Carousel,” from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, a whirling dervish of a song, her arms were in constant motion, speeding up in time with the music. The song ended in a burst of circling light from a disco ball, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the woman at the center of it, marveling at this 89-year-old dynamo,
Although she seemed to barely be breathing hard, Chita told us, “I am at a point where I admit when things are rough and tough.”
With some exceptions, A Legendary Celebration is a cabaret act Chita has been performing during the 2010s, with a great big pandemic interruption between shows. The Pittsburgh sold-out shows on Monday and Tuesday were twice-delayed; she was kept away in April by COVID, and since then was seen at the Tony Awards (she has three, in 10 nominations). Amidst her Broadway brethren, she was honored with an ovation as the original Anita in “West Side Story,” side by side with the Oscar-winning Ariana DeBose.
Noting that it was the 65th anniversary of the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents musical, she launched into “A Boy Like That” and “America,” the latter a playful duet with pianist Gary Adler.
The stage was set up for a trio, but the bassist in the program, Mary Ann McSweeney, was absent. However, Adler and drummer Joe Mowatt were in sync with the star and her wide range of songs.
At one point, Chita turned to Adler and said, “There was a word I used to know …” And Adler completed the thought with, “How yinz all doing?”
We were all doing just fine, judging by the reaction.
Chita also sprung a hometown surprise on many Pittsburghers in the audience who hadn’t realized she brought along a special guest: George Dvorsky, the Irwin native whose Broadway credits include “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and who was last seen here as the star of Pittsburgh CLO’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
The towering Dvorsky joined the star in a love song from “The Visit” – her Tony-nominated Broadway finale, in 2015.
So many of the lyrics in her chosen songs take on new meaning when sung by someone approaching her 90th year.
Toward the end of Monday night’s show, Chita performed a memorable rendition of “Nowadays” from Chicago, for which she donned a top hat and brought out a cane. The number included a couple of spot-on impressions of her dance partner for that number, Gwen Verdon, and also a bit of a nod to the lyric: In fifty years or so / It’s gonna change, you know / But, oh, it’s heaven / Nowadays.
After a standing-O, Chita closed with the song “Circle of Friends,” prefacing her return to the stage with, “If you can take it, I can make it.”
From her album “And Now I Swing,” the song “is a Valentine one eternally sends,” a sweet declaration that love and friendship are timeless treasures. The same can be said of Chita Rivera.