By Jay Harvey
She first captured America’s attention by creating the peppery Anita – with swirling skirts and attitude to spare – in “West Side Story” more than a half-century ago.
Chita Rivera has epitomized pizazz ever since, and has a couple of Tony Awards as well as the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to confirm her special qualities as an entertainer.
Now Actors Theatre of Indiana is bringing her to Carmel in the one-woman show that debuted in New York to celebrate her 80th birthday last year. Her current national tour of “Chita: A National Celebration” reacquaints audiences with the stamp she put on such shows as “West Side Story,” “Sweet Charity,” “Chicago,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Born in Washington, D.C., to a musician and a government worker, Rivera started moving toward her triple-threat stature as an entertainer as an 11-year-old ballet student. Her success led to a scholarship to the American School of Ballet, headed by George Balanchine.
Rivera’s student move to New York positioned her to win the audition for the role of the heroine Maria’s best friend, Anita. They are the principal female figures on the Puerto Rican side of the show’s tragic rivalry between two street gangs. The conflict and its outcome are based loosely on Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet.”
Anita’s show-stopping number celebrating her community’s advantages in its new homeland, “America,” was the vehicle for establishing the young star’s rise. She repeated her 1957 triumph in the role in London, then went on to be featured in a host of other Broadway productions. Two of them – “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” – brought her two Tony Awards.
Among Rivera’s recent productions on Broadway are “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “The Dancer’s Life” – the latter a Terence McNally work written in her honor. This summer she re-created for the Williamstown Theatre Festival her starring role in “The Visit,” a much-reworked Kander-and-Ebb musical version of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play about revenge and greed in a small European town.
She was cited for her career achievements with a Kennedy Center Honor in 2002, becoming the first female Hispanic recipient of the award. Among Rivera’s accomplishments away from the stage was running a New York City restaurant named for her between 1988 and 1994.
What: Chita: A Legendary Celebration
Who: Chita Rivera, with orchestra conducted by Michael Croiter
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 25
Where: The Palladium, the Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: $55-$100 ($35, students); 843-3800