By Tulis McCall
Chita Rivera doesn’t just take the stage at Cafe Carlyle. She hoists it over her shoulder and walks off with it. Rivera is a performer so in love with being on a stage that you wonder what pitiful amount of energy she might have left to devote to other matters.
Rivera nearly bursts onto the postage stamp of a stage and launches into A Lot Of Livin’ To Do. Her first couple of numbers were a tad rocky, but she relaxed quickly and led us on a merry chase. Unlike some legends, Rivera does not completely fill the evening with stories from her past, because she is too busy living in the present. She is ravenous for everything that is going on around her at any given moment.
The stories of her fabulous collaborations have their place, sprinkled here and there. She got a lot of phone calls back in the day when people lived with land lines. Bernstein answered his own door at the Osborne Hotel and escorted her to the piano stool. He sat down next to her and taught her Anita’s West Side Story songs while she focused on not upchucking all over him. Her too short medley of West Side Story makes you yearn to time travel back to her performance for which she did not win a Tony and for which Rita Moreno won an Oscar – but whose counting. Rivera reminds us that this is the 60th annniversary of WSS and remembers walking down Broadway a few years ago and seeing signs for West Side Story, Chicago and Bye Bye Birdie – in all of which she originated roles – and thinking “Shouldn’t I be somewhere tonight at 8:00?”
Her delivery of Sweet Happy Life (Bonfa, Maria, Gimbel, Ben) is eubulant without being saccharine (no one would ever accuse her of being THAT). She encouraged us all to feel the music in our bodies – as she does, and by the end of the evening I swear I had the shoulder moves d-o-w-n. As high as she takes us she also goes low, down deep into the places that we all feel but are reluctant to explore. Where Am I Going (Coleman, Fields – from Sweet Charity) is an extended moment of supreme reflection fit for any age. I first heard it on a Barbara Streisand album back when I was 16 and thought is had been written for ME. Her raw delivery of Jacques Brel’s Carousel is a seductive and ultimately shattering comment on our horrible political times.
She reaches for mystery and a crescendo with her Spider Woman Medley, and shifts gears into her “quiet song” of the evening, I Don’t Remember You that sends a skewer into the heart of every listener. The last half of her show is devoted to John Kander and “Freddy” Ebb, and each song fits Rivera like a silk glove. And not for nothin’ but the quartet (Michael Croiter, Music Direction, percussion and guitar; Jim Donica, bass; Dan Willis, Reeds; Jason Loffredo, piano) supporting her is superb. With the unusual combination of instruments they sound more like a full on orchestra and raise the level of grandeur considerably.
She closes out the evening with the tune for which we have all been waiting: All That Jazz. For a final, final she salutes her family and friends (among whom she counts us) with Circle Of Friends.
Advice to all of us – Face into the wind and go that way. And if you wake up in the morning and are able to put one foot on the floor, then the other, and if your legs move smoothly, you have some time left. Don’t waste it. Make the most of it. Chita is.
As a perfect addition to the evening, Rivera’s sister Lola was in attendance with Maria Lohmeyer. Both brought the good news that their restaurant Maria’s Mont Blanc, will be re-opening as Mont Blanc 52. The watering hole that so many theatre folk called home for 30 years closed in May 2016 due to landlord difficulties (surprise). You can sign up for the opening updates here – www.montblanc52.com
All in all this was a night that gave proof: some glorious New York institutions just do NOT fade away. How fabulous is that?
Performances will take place Tuesday – Saturday at 8:45pm. Reservations made by phone at 212.744.1600 are $75 ($125 for premium seating, $50 for bar seating) Tuesday – Thursday; $100 ($150 for premium seating, $75 for bar seating) on Friday and Saturday. Reservations can also be made online via Ticketweb. Café Carlyle is located in The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel (35 East 76th Street, at Madison Avenue).