On Broadway: Staying Power
The Visit’s old and young Claires, played by Chita Rivera and Michelle Veintimilla. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy O&M Co.
After more than half a century on Broadway, and much acclaim—two Tonys, a 2004 Dance Magazine Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Kennedy Center Honor—Chita Rivera has earned the right to generalize about audiences. “People nowadays,” she says, “they go to the theater and everything is so simple for them. They want television.”
Her latest show, the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s acerbic 1956 tragicomedy The Visit, in no way resembles television. A shocking tale of revenge, greed and murder—themes it shares with Kander and Ebb’s Chicago—The Visit centers on a fabulously wealthy dowager who returns to the impoverished town that had scorned her in her youth. It’s not a visit driven by nostalgia; she wants to get even with the townspeople who drove her out and with the man (played by Roger Rees) who loved her and betrayed her.
“Our show really says something, like so many of the shows that I’ve been lucky enough to do,” Rivera muses. “The West Sides and the Spider Womans really have something to say about how people think and what they do to each other.” The Visit has been evolving since its 2001 premiere in Chicago, and Rivera finds its “sad but magical” tone “very European,” in stark contrast to more conventional musicals with upbeat endings.
Still, director John Doyle and choreographer Graciela Daniele have used the lilting, almost Viennese score to create moments of show-biz enchantment. There’s a lively ode to “Yellow Shoes.” The youthful versions of Rivera’s and Rees’ characters, played by Michelle Veintimilla and John Riddle, do an erotic, balletic pas de deux. In an emotional high point, Rivera and Veintimilla extinguish time, dancing together as one person. “Graciela’s ballet is such a wonderful idea,” Rivera gushes. “To dance with your younger soul, it has a beautiful, pure quality typical of Graciela.”
Daniele and Rivera have a long history together. They were both in the original 1975 production of Chicago—Rivera starring (with Gwen Verdon) and Daniele playing one of the murderesses. She choreographed The Rink for Rivera in 1984 and directed and choreographed Rivera’s 2005 musical bio, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life. Says Rivera, “She knows my language. She knows how I think. She knows how I feel. She knows how I look when I move. We are also from the same era, and our foundation is ballet.”
There’s the slightest hint of “What’s the matter with kids today?” when Rivera adds, “We were dancers who did as we were told. The choreographer would choreograph, and we would do it, simply do it. Nothing was adjusted to our bodies.” It was, she grants, a very different time. “Graciela will say every day of her life that she is blessed that she came up with Jerome Robbins and Peter Gennaro and Balanchine and all of the great choreographers. She says she simply does what she learned from them. And that’s exactly where I came from. We come from the same pot of stew, of rice and beans.”
But Rivera doesn’t dwell on the past. She’s enthusiastic about the talent she sees in Veintimilla and Riddle. “Michelle has a huge future,” she says. “She plays that wild gypsy girl that I was deep down inside. She is like a sponge—she’s smart, she wants to learn.” There’s another mentor on hand—Rivera’s understudy is Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie in A Chorus Line. “When I heard that Donna had accepted that job,” Rivera says, “I was thrilled. When you have a great experience, you want to share it with people you care about.”
That group seems to include everyone who’s had anything to do with The Visit. In a half-hour conversation, Rivera manages to praise not just her fellow performers but the playwright, the set designer, the team behind the show’s previous incarnations. “Rubbing elbows with creative people,” she says, “is making your own tapestry richer. Making yourself more understanding, more of a human being. Wow!”
As the much-traveled, much-married heroine of The Visit, Chita Rivera recounts a series of calamities that left the character with an artificial leg and arm. The line might remind a theatergoer of the 1986 car accident that smashed Rivera’s left leg. But Rivera has never thought of her own surgeries. “It’s been so long that the 16 screws are a part of me now,” she says. “The line that I do kind of cherish,” she adds, “is when I say ‘I’m unkillable.’ I didn’t realize the audience would apply it to me.”
Rivera knows the response she gets has a personal dimension that wouldn’t be there for a younger, less durable performer. “I made it through the dance world,” she says, “broken this and broken that. But when I had the car accident, that could have stopped everything. And it didn’t.” – SG