Of course, I knew the name. Chita Rivera. Mostly because an apparent feud between her and Rita Moreno was included in the Forbidden Broadway satirical musical revue. It’s telling, I suppose, that of all the various people Rivera name-dropped in a relatively brief but nonetheless enthralling concert, Moreno wasn’t one of them. This was a trip down memory lane for Rivera, as well as for her supporters, which on the night included Dame Judi Dench. At 86 years, Rivera not only continues to walk unaided but dances to the beat of the live orchestra (directed by Michael Croiter). Some of the musical numbers are a challenge for almost anyone, such as a Jacques Brel song which builds in builds (as Brel’s songs tend to do) in intensity and rapidity, and if it wasn’t for a certain raspiness in Rivera’s voice that comes with advancing years, she might have gotten away with coming across as someone half her age.
There was a sweet and amusing impersonation of Gwen Verdon in a tune from Chicago, and Rivera had a lovely habit of singing both Rosalia and Anita’s lines in ‘America’ from West Side Story, and even all three parts in ‘Camille, Colette, Fifi’, a tune from Seventh Heaven (a show which I admit to knowing nothing about). Rivera’s first West End role was a reprise of Anita, which she had played on Broadway, in West Side Story, which opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1958. Such is Rivera’s vivid memory that she still recalls the rehearsal period in the Theatre Royal Haymarket across the road, and its resident ghost.
Her only moment off-stage (apart from the interval, of course) was when, having begun ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story, she let the ArtsEd Choir sing the remainder. To the audience’s credit, there were people who rose to their feet in appreciation of the student performers, just as they had risen after Rivera’s still effervescent rendering of ‘America’ a few moments before. Still a ‘triple threat’, Rivera had her fair share of anecdotes about her working relationships with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, all of whom, like so many of the people she mentioned (including Welsh actor and director Roger Rees) had now passed on.
A pleasant and unique experience.