Youmans: Chita Rivera to perform hits from a storied career

Two-time Tony award-winner Chita Rivera will jazz up Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa this week during a cabaret-style evening of timeless music and storytelling.

"Chita Rivera: My Broadway," which has four shows Thursday through Sunday, will feature hit songs from Rivera's legendary Broadway career, while showcasing some of the best-known musical theater composers, including Leonard Bernstein, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Charles Strouse, Stephen Sondheim and Cy Coleman.

Accompanied by her longtime musical trio, as well as musical director Michael Croiter, Rivera will perform "America" from "West Side Story," "Where Am I Going" and "Big Spender" from "Sweet Charity," "All That Jazz" and "Nowadays" from "Chicago" and select numbers from "Bye Bye Birdie," "Kiss of the Spiderwoman" and "The Rink," the last two of which earned her Tony Awards for best leading actress in a musical.

"When you've got material that you've been lucky enough to originate, and people that might have seen the shows, you just do what your heart tells you and you have good people around you that help you put it together, and then it kind of flows," Rivera said in a phone interview.

Looking back, she sees each of her roles as learning experiences, theatrical journeys in which she discovered herself through these diverse sets of characters, she said.

"You learn so much about yourself through the roles that you do," the fiery, free-spirited Rivera said. "The roles came along at the right time in my life. I remember when I did 'Spiderwoman.' I've realized that that [role] was perfect for that time in my life, that age. I was always curious about death and she was death. She was really glamorous, and I felt glamorous at that time."

"I remember with 'West Side' I had just gotten married, and I had just become pregnant in 'West Side'," she said of her portrayal of Anita. "The part was not only fiery and passionate, she sort of took care of Maria. That was at the perfect time in my life when I was about to have a baby and the show itself was taking care of Maria."

"In 'Birdie,' that was a lot of fun," she said of her role as Rose, which she originated on Broadway in 1960 and reprised in London a year later. "That satisfied that very light-hearted side of me with Dick Van Dyke. They're all a part of me. I'm crazy and I love to laugh and I'm able to do those kinds of roles. It's all very interesting, me getting introduced to myself."

But while uncovering her identity through a vast collection of characters, Rivera is not without her own tale. Her career in the performing arts began at a young age and took a peculiar course with several twists of fate along the way.

Rivera's autobiographical show, "A Dancer's Life," by Terrence McNally recounts the intriguing journey leading up to her emergence on Broadway as a versatile triple threat.

"I can't say I like singing better than dancing, but for sure I was born a dancer and will always be one," she said.

Rivera started ballet at age 11 and soon caught the eye of the legendary George Balanchine, who awarded her a scholarship to the American School of Ballet.

But after landing her first theatrical audition, "Call Me Madam," Rivera traded in her desire to join a ballet company for a future in musical theater, a business she calls "so bloody hard."

"I liked the whole feeling of that kind of work and so I went for it," she said. "I just followed my nose."

Life wasn't always this easy. In 1986, Rivera faced a daunting road block. One night, on the way home from the theater, her car collided with a taxi in a near-paralyzing accident, leaving her leg broken in 12 places.

"To be truthful, I was very grateful that I could recover," Rivera said. "I followed my doctor's instructions, and he got me back up on my feet again. I knew that things would be a little different, but how different I didn't know. You never know until you experience it. So 11 months later, I was dancing."

In recent years, Rivera has been honored for her sizzling performances and fighting spirit amid adversity.

In December 2002 she was awarded the coveted Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., and later, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in August 2009.

"It was unreal, really," Rivera said. "You felt like any minute they're going to say, 'I'm sorry but we made a mistake and can we have it back?' You don't spend too much time on achievements. You just accept it and try to live by those honors that you get, respect them and live by them and hope you're a good example for some young kids."

If You Go

What: "Chita Rivera: My Broadway"

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: $72

Information: or (714) 556-2787

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