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COVER STORY : Oh, What a Web She Weaves : With 40 years in the theater, a couple of Tony Awards and a plum role in ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman,’ Chita Rivera is a bona fide Broadway star. Come into her parlor.

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Patrick Pacheco is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Standing in the lobby of the Clift Hotel, Chita Rivera looks like a gamin who might have just wandered in off the street. With her boyish figure draped all in black--soft leather pants, sweater and cap pulled over her wild black ringlets--and no makeup, there is nothing to suggest that this is a bona fide Broadway legend--one who, in a matter of hours, will be on the stage of the Curran Theatre personifying show-business glamour in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” her 1993 Tony-winning triumph, which is currently on a national tour.

On Tuesday, the show, written by Terrence McNally, directed by Harold Prince and with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, opens at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. On Jan. 10, it moves to Pasadena Civic Auditorium, and in March, “Kiss” finally reaches Los Angeles with an engagement at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center.

Even after four decades creating some of the most memorable roles on the Broadway musical stage--Anita in “West Side Story,” Rose in “Bye Bye Birdie,” Velma in “Chicago”--the public is still a little vague on exactly who Chita Rivera, at 62, is. Part of her relative obscurity stems from the fact that, aside from the 1969 film of “Sweet Charity” (in which she played the call girl Nicky), she has not established a reputation in movies or television.

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But it is also partly because the actress has always thought of herself as just one of the boys, a self-described workhorse more comfortable kibitzing with chorus kids in her dressing room than holding court at the Russian Tea Room.

Indeed, ask her what the best thing is about her current success--she is reportedly receiving the highest salary of her career--and Rivera replies in that distinctively sexy rasp, “Room service and lots and lots and lots of space, honey.”

Pouring her guest a cup of tea in the hotel’s dining room, the actress adds: “You know, even when I was doing my act in nightclubs some years ago, the boys were always having to tell me, ‘Move down[stage], Chita’--I automatically wanted to stay back with the herd. I was more secure there. I still have that mentality, but I’m now really comfortable carrying a show. I’m not as embarrassed as I used to be about being--and this is a word that I really don’t like--a ‘star.’ ”

Early on, it seemed unlikely that “Kiss of the Spider Woman” would be the show that would transform Rivera into a Broadway legend. Adapted for the musical stage by McNally from Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, the splashy production eventually went on to win seven Tony awards in 1993, including best actress in a musical and best musical, after playing Toronto and London. But it had begun life three years before, sans Rivera, in a disastrous tryout that nearly finished it off.

Back at the drawing boards, the creators approached Rivera, whose previous musical had been a touring revival of “Can-Can,” her first major appearance after a near-fatal auto accident in 1986 shattered her left leg. That alone might have ended the career of a less determined person, but within 18 months, Rivera was starring in the revival, and besting the high-kicking “Can Can” chorus line.

The challenge of “Kiss” for Rivera, when she started rehearsals in 1992, was in playing a dual role: Aurora, a 1940s musical screen goddess, and the Spider Woman, the embodiment of death who hangs over this tale of an unlikely alliance between two men sharing a jail cell in a South American prison.

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That duo includes Molina, played by Juan Chioran, a witty gay window dresser, and Valentin, played by Dorian Harewood, a dour political dissident fighting a repressive regime. Molina--the role that won William Hurt an Oscar in Hector Babenco’s 1985 dramatic film version--escapes the dreary claustrophobia of his incarceration by conjuring up Aurora in fantasy, recounting to his cellmate his idol’s most famous roles.

All of which is as good an excuse as any for Rivera to come on singing and dancing in drop-dead costumes, a one-woman explosion of color, energy and samba sensuality. Add androgyny too, for in one sequence, dressed in white tails and Louise Brooks hairdo, she evokes Marlene Dietrich’s mischievous sex-role play.

When Rivera’s not playing the siren Aurora, she’s clambering across a metal grid as the Spider Woman, wearing a mesh body stocking lined with rhinestones and coaxing her victims into her fatal embrace.

If, as Rivera says, “Death is upfront these days, in our laps and in our faces,” then it might as well be personified by a woman whose zest for life--whether knocking herself out onstage or just having a gabfest with friends--stands as a reproof to it. The Grim Reaper has never looked less grim.

“Our death figure has heart and warmth, so you can’t be afraid of her,” said Ebb, the lyricist of the show, who has been Rivera’s friend and collaborator since they worked together in the ‘60s on a nightclub act. “Chita can be fiery and tough as nails and yet extremely feminine and helpless. She can do and play practically anything and she can do that now with a confidence and regality and maturity that she’s never had before. She’s one of the few, maybe the only one, around who has that kind of versatility on stage.”

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In fact, Rivera stands pretty much alone among her generation in longevity on the musical stage. Gwen Verdon has retired, Liza Minnelli hasn’t been on Broadway in a decade, Julie Andrews only recently came back and Angela Lansbury has found a niche in television. Carol Channing, God bless her, is still mixing it up, but she’s basically been playing the same roles--Lorelei Lee and Dolly Levi--for 40 years. Rivera alone has been working constantly, either in New York or on the road, albeit in some rather shaky projects.

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“Let’s face it, honey, some of the shows didn’t last that long,” she says philosophically, taking a long sip of tea. Nominated seven times for Broadway’s highest award, she first took home a Tony in 1984 for “The Rink,” which was a flop. And before “Kiss” gave her a second wind, she was in a string of Broadway also-rans, including “Jerry’s Girls,” a revue of Jerry Herman’s music, and “Merlin,” magician Doug Henning’s vehicle in which she played the Evil Queen.

And while most Broadway divas tend to insulate themselves with either a husband or a manager to run interference for them, Rivera has pretty much been out there on her own.

“Take no prisoners!” is the greeting that her good friend Minnelli sends her on opening nights, and Ebb says that when she is in a fighting mood, he knows not to get anywhere near her dressing room.

She allows that her image as one of the nicest people in show business might be a little skewed.

“I’m not anywhere as nice as I come across,” she says with a mischievous grin. “I tend to be as kind as I am because I just don’t want to see how evil I can really get. I look in the mirror and I think, ‘There are some pretty strong bones in that face.’ I’m chiffon--but I can also be steel.”

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That emotional duality was forged early on in Conchita del Rivero, born in Washington to Pedro del Rivero, a dapper Puerto Rican-born band musician (“I remember a handsome man in a white suit and carrying a clarinet”) and his American-born wife, Katherine. Her father died of cancer when Rivera was 7, and her mother took a government job to support her five children.

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Forthright and loving, Katherine del Rivero taught her daughter to make the most of her opportunities and talent, despite what Rivera calls forbidding limitations--her short stature, a head of unruly black hair and features dominated by a wide nose that led her brothers to nickname her Chicken Butt.

Auditioning for George Balanchine in 1949, Rivera won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. But when she accompanied a friend to a tryout for “Call Me Madam” and landed a place in the chorus, Rivera was launched on a different sort of career.

“I remember walking into that dressing room like it was yesterday,” she recalls. “There were all these gorgeous tall girls, with their legs up on the makeup tables, putting on nylons, beading their eyelashes, and looking over their shoulder to give me the once over. I was terrified.”

Fear, Rivera thinks, is as good a primer for show business as any, whether it’s trying to please such exacting taskmasters as Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, or that fickle creature called the audience.

“It never really gets easier. Every time you go out there, it’s for the first time, no matter how well you’ve done before,” she says. “So you might as well have somebody just standing there, in your face, shouting, ‘Do it or get out.’ ”

While her talent, technique and discipline always stood up to the most demanding scrutiny, Rivera acknowledges that her striking but not conventionally pretty looks and natural shyness were more difficult hurdles.

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“I sometimes felt like a little drowned rat next to these girls,” she acknowledges.

What helped, she says, was being Latin. “My looks, my nationality, the rhythm and sound of my voice have enabled me to appear more out there, more abandoned than I really am,” she says. Nor does she feel that her ethnic background has ever had a debilitating effect on her career opportunities.

“It always bothered Rita Moreno more than me,” she adds, referring to the actress who won an Oscar playing the role of Anita in the 1960 film of “West Side Story.” “All those slave girls she had to play. I just had to dance. You have that focus, you go for it and it saves your life.”

The one glaring exception, of course, was when the role of Rose for the film version of “Bye Bye Birdie” was assigned to Janet Leigh, Latinized with black wig, hoop earrings and dark mascara. When the film’s producers asked if they could film Rivera’s Broadway performance to be used as reference, she replied in scatological terms.

But no matter how well her career developed, and how much her Latin-ness got her “out there,” her insecurities never completely went away. In 1975, when she co-starred with Verdon in Bob Fosse’s “Chicago,” she was called upon to make her entrance in the show stretched out on a plinth that slowly rose from the orchestra pit to a spotlight front and center. Most performers would kill for such an entrance; Rivera felt she owed the audience an apology.

“No matter what Gwen said to make me feel on her level, it took me a long time to feel as though I had a right to make that entrance,” Rivera recalls. “I’d run around in circles just before the show started thinking, ‘OK, who am I tonight? Gina Lollobrigida? Audrey Hepburn? Sophia Loren?’ ” Anybody, it seems, but Chicken Butt.

Rivera has a comparable moment in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” in a scene with Molina in which her dual roles fuse. Film goddess Aurora had once played the Spider Woman in a film that frightened Molina, and it is in this incarnation that she appears to him when he is taken to the prison infirmary.

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“I am beautiful,” she tells him, “and gentle, kind and warm.” One wonders if when she says this line in the show, she still feels the need to conjure an alter-ego?

“No,” she says, “now I think of me.” After a pause, she adds with a laugh. “But when you say a line like that and you don’t exactly look like Gina or Sophia or Audrey, you have this real urge to turn to the audience and say, ‘Just kidding!’ ”

Indeed, what had been a source of some pain to her in the past is now something of a blessing. But having the last laugh isn’t the point. For Rivera sharing her success with family and friends is more important. She says that one of the main reasons she decided to accept the offer of the national tour was the opportunity to spend more time with her daughter, Lisa Mordente, a choreographer and actress who lives with her husband, Donnie Kehr, also an actor-choreographer, in Los Angeles.

Mordente’s father is stage and television director Tony Mordente, who met Rivera when they were performing in “West Side Story” together. The marriage lasted about a decade. The actress not long ago ended an 18-year relationship with a theater technician with whom she lived but never married. It was not a happy parting, and she has found herself struggling to remain uncynical about love.

“My first reaction was I’ll never trust again,” she says. “But then I couldn’t be myself. Like a lot of people in my generation, I learned about love not only from my parents, who were passionate, open and cared deeply, but also from old movies. They were so courageous about love, they deprived themselves of things that nowadays people wouldn’t last two seconds before grabbing it for themselves.”

“Kiss,” in fact, deals with just that sort of courageous love, between two men. And Rivera plays various roles as Aurora, sending up not only the romance of the old movies but also the steaming sensuality that one associates with Latin spitfires. Rivera says that she was taken aback when a woman stopped her on the street and said, “I saw you in the show and I think it’s just great to see a woman so in touch with her sexuality.” This at a time when the actress was convinced she was through for good with sexuality after her breakup.

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“You know, when I was in Los Angeles visiting Lisa last week, I was having dinner with her and my good friend Judy Leaf,” she recalls. “And I was saying to them, ‘You know, I just can’t be bothered anymore with this heart-beating-fast thing, worried about how I look and is my back straight and oh God, these thighs! Now all I want is for some guy to come home, throw money at me and say, ‘Go shopping.’ I’m through with all the rest.’ ”

That resolve apparently lasted until Leaf put on some great Brazilian music. “Suddenly, I’m swaying and feeling hot, and I just yelled out, ‘OK, I lied! Yes, I do want to fall in love again.’ But not until that moment did the truth come out and it came out with a bossa nova rhythm. You can try but you can’t stop it!”

Rivera recounts all this with her hands moving and her head thrown back. Then she stops herself, worried. Is she going to sound cheap? “Just make sure,” she admonishes, “you say that sex and romance are just one part of a much larger picture.”

That picture appears to be looking more and more golden as Rivera segues into the autumn of a life spent in the theater. As did Angela Lansbury, she would like to finally make the transition from theater to television. In 1973-74, she was in 13 episodes of “The New Dick Van Dyke Show” and later played in the pilot for “Kojak.”

“I would love to do something along the lines of ‘The Cosby Show,’ ” she says. “A sitcom like that with a Latin family, or something along the lines of a ‘Golden Girls.’ ”

Rivera also says she’s looking forward to relaxing with friends and family at the new hideaway she just bought in Puerto Rico. And she adds that she can hardly wait until Lisa makes her a grandmother for the first time.

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“I just want to grow old gracefully,” says the actress. “I want to keep meeting whatever challenges I still have career-wise, but I hope I can learn to relax and enjoy what’s left of my life. I think I have the smarts and sense to recognize where I should be in my life at any given time. But just in case, I’ve asked friends and family to let me know if they see me going off the deep end. If the skirts are getting too short or the hair is too dark, or whatever.”

Rivera laughs and pours herself another cup of tea. “I just want to be the best grandmother in the world,” she says dreamily. “I want to pull my hair back into a fabulous bun and look really elegant, really sweet and really powerful.”

* “Kiss of the Spider Woman”: Dec. 26-Jan. 6, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sunday, 2 p.m. $19-$49.50. (714) 556-2122. Also, Jan. 10-14: Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena; Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.; Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, 2 p.m. $25-$55. (213) 480-3232. March 14-April 21: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. $15-$65. (213) 365-3500.

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