Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the February 14,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Chita & Arthur Together

I don’t know why Chita Rivera and I got onto the

subject

of fate and the "what if" principal when we spoke before her

rehearsal of "Venecia," by Argentinean Jorge Accame. Opening

night is Wednesday, February 14, for George Street Playhouse’s

American

premiere of the work that had been adapted and directed by Arthur

Laurents. Perhaps an aura of fate still lingered in the air at the

George Street from last season’s premiere of Anne Meara’s "Down

the Garden Paths," in which we saw how the lives of its characters

would be different, If.

"I can’t imagine what my life and career would have been like

if I hadn’t been given a scholarship by George Balanchine to the

American

School of Ballet when I was 16 years old," says the 67-year-old

musical theater star, nominated seven times for a Tony award and twice

a winner. "I also don’t want to think about what fate would have

had in store for me if Arthur [Laurents] hadn’t changed the Jews into

Puerto Ricans when he was writing the book for `West Side Story.’"

Rivera originated the role of the lovely Anita in the classic 1957

New York musical, and immediately became the toast of Broadway. It

is a spot she has claimed with virtually every subsequent appearance.

She laughs at the idea that destiny ("I believe in destiny")

has again played a part in reuniting her with Laurents, for the first

time since "West Side Story."

Rivera is more anxious to talk about her current role as an elderly

blind madam in "Venecia," during our brief phone conversation.

Yet I couldn’t resist opening with a question about her most recent

engagement in "Anything Goes" at Paper Mill Playhouse. She

played the role of Reno Sweeney and had the audience in awe of her

agile and trim figure, and jealous because she looks about half her

actual age. What’s your secret, I ask. "You gotta keep

movin’,"

she says, immediately, with a hearty and sincere laugh.

Perhaps "movin’" in the direction of roles that don’t demand

as much physicality are in her future, but Rivera insists that she

isn’t there yet. "I have great therapists, remedies, no

addictions,

and take a class when I’m not working in a musical. I want to stay

in shape," she says, adding how strong all the screws nuts and

bolts are that were used to repair her left leg that was badly injured

after a 1986 car crash. "I can rely on those even if everything

around them gives way." Rivera recalls that it was Laurents who

walked up to her at a party in South Hampton soon after the car

accident

and insisted that she dance with him. "He pulled me up and said,

`You can do it. Dance with me.’ I knew I could rely on him."

With "Venecia," Rivera is again relying on Laurents, her

long-time

friend, now her director, who reportedly called her up a few months

ago and said, "C’mon, c’mon, you have to do it, the part is you.

I want you." Although "Venecia" is not a musical,

appearing

in a straight play is not foreign territory for Rivera, who toured

as Billy Dawn in "Born Yesterday," as Serafina in "The

Rose Tattoo," and in Oliver Hailey’s "Father’s Day."

"All actors have insecurities and he had to bully me into doing

`Venecia,’ but I love my part, and the play," says Rivera. She

modestly describes the play as "delicious, romantic and

funny."

In it, Rivera plays La Vieja ("the old lady"), an old blind

proprietress of a rundown bordello who dreams of going to Venice

before

she dies. Without my suggestion, Rivera voluntarily assumes the

accents

of La Vieja and of one of the girls to give me an instant preview:

"Chiquita, will you take me to Venecia? No, no, La Vieja, the

girl says, I have to work." Switching registers, Rivera answers

back, "Work! Work! Work! And love? Do you know what love is? When

are you going to know?"

There is no stopping Rivera in her enthusiasm. She explains that

because

La Vieja wants to go so badly, the girls at the bordello and a young

man there conspire to make her dream come true: to go to the lovely

and haunting Venice and return to the man she was once madly in love

with. They make the blind La Vieja believe that she is on a boat,

an airplane, and a gondola. Because she cannot see, she explains,

they make up on the spot such sights as the Leaning Tower of Pisa,

and the Sistine Chapel.

Rivera grew up in Washington, D.C., a child of the

Depression.

"My father died when I was seven and my mother raised five

children

alone. But she made sure I began ballet lessons when I was 11,"

she says. At 17, after a year of classes at the American School of

Ballet with such teachers as Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Maria

Tallchief,

and Edward Villella, Rivera got up enough courage in 1950 to

successfully

audition as one of the four principal dancers in the Ethel Merman

musical, "Call Me Madam."

That show was followed by dancing roles in "Guys and Dolls"

(1950), "Can Can" (1953), and "Seventh Heaven" (1955).

Then as a Broadway star in "Mr. Wonderful" (in 1956, with

Sammy Davis Jr.), "Bye Bye Birdie" (in 1960, with Dick Van

Dyke), "Bajour" (1964), "Chicago" (in 1975 with Gwen

Verdon), "Merlin" (in 1983, with Doug Henning), "The

Rink"

(with Liza Minnelli, for which Rivera won a Tony), "Kiss of the

Spider Woman" (winner of 1993 Tony award as Best Leading actress

in a Musical), and "Jerry’s Girls" (1985).

When I mention the five-performance fiasco of "Bring Back

Birdie,"

in 1981, in which she co-starred with Donald O’Connor, she only says

"Oh, God, I guess that was fate too!," and laughs.

"Venecia" was first staged by director Helena Tritek in Buenos

Aires. It has also been performed in Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia,

Colombia,

Canada (in French), Venezuela, Mexico, England (at the Gate Theater),

and Spain, and will be seen in France and Greece during the 2001-’02

season.

Laurents’ adaptation and staging of "Venecia, which plays through

March 11 at George Street Playhouse, continues his close artistic

relationship with the theater.

Laurents’ play "Jolson Sings Again" premiered at George Street

in 1999. Next, in October of the same year, Laurents’ revised book

for "Do I Hear A Waltz?" was given a production.

His newest play "Claudio Lazlo," about a domineering actress

whose tumultuous behavior nearly sabotages her most important role,

will star Cigdem Onat, who was featured in the Lincoln Center revival

of Laurents’ "Time of the Cuckoo" last season. "Claudio

Lazlo" will open, under the direction of George Street artistic

director David Saint, April 21, and play through May 20.

— Simon Saltzman

Venecia, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue,

New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for the American premiere

of Jorge Accame’s play. To March 11. $24 to $40. Wednesday,

February

14, 8 p.m.


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