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Rivera tells her story with charisma

Chita Rivera still knows how to razzle-dazzle. (paul kolnik)

By conservative estimate, probably 90 percent of the audience at last night's opening of "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life" at the Colonial Theatre came prepared to be wowed, having witnessed the double Tony Award-winner's onstage charisma before. She has given us 55 years, after all, in which to catch her act.

As for the 10 percent of us a few decades behind in picking up the banner? Converts all -- again, by conservative estimate.

Rivera, 74, is that winning. Yes, her moves may not be as technically astounding as no doubt they once were, but she still knows how to razzle-dazzle: it's amazing, the mileage she can get out of a crisp gesture, a snappy attitude. Her high kicks may no longer shoot sky-high -- especially the left leg -- but once she's gotten to know you a bit (and she gives the impression of talking one-on-one with the packed theater), she'll explain that discrepancy, along with the history of the past half-century of Broadway dance.

She has worked with the best, from Jerome Robbins on "West Side Story" to Bob Fosse on "Chicago." Rivera also takes care to credit Peter Gennaro with the Latino dance sequences of "West Side Story," feeling that he never got the credit he was due.

Rivera should know from under appreciation. Again and again, her stage roles were recast once they went to film. Rita Moreno supplanted her as Anita in "West Side Story" (Rivera was all of 23 when it opened on Broadway in 1957 and so essential to the production that the London transfer was postponed so that she could give birth to her daughter, Lisa Mordente, dance captain for the current tour). Her next starring role, in 1960's "Bye Bye Birdie," went to Janet Leigh, Hispanicized with a dye job and a deep tan. Any other performer might legitimately nurse a grudge, but Rivera kept moving on .

What comes as a surprise in the show, since she's so famed as a dancer, is what a good singer Rivera is. Her rich, solid alto is capable of all sorts of color, from pathos to raw sexuality-- a quality she also brings to her tango with Richard Amaro (the standout in an ensemble of eight dancers). When not revisiting the key moments, high and low, of her stage career, Rivera is busy dishing up romantic reminiscences -- including a wordless dance segment depicting the friction that lead to her 1966 divorce, which remains "the saddest day" of her life. It's the least showy number in the show, and among the most touching.

Celebrated playwright Terrence McNally (author of both plays that earned Rivera a Tony: 1984's "The Rink" and 1992's "Kiss of the Spider Woman") has done a beautiful job of shaping what most likely began as a mishmash of memories . The dramatic arc starts with Rivera backstage in 2002, about to be awarded a Kennedy Center Honor, and you'd be forgiven an internal groan: Oh, please, you think, not another star's auto-hagiography. But Rivera is so honest and practical about the steps she took to rise to the top that in a way the show serves as a primer for aspiring performers, whatever their level.

"If you're lucky, you take yourself a little more seriously, and it shows in your work," Rivera observes. "If you're unlucky," she warns, "you take yourself a little more seriously, and you turn into a . . ." You can fill in the blank, and rest assured, she evaded that outcome.

Rivera may take to the stage as a diehard dancer, but she leaves it as a warm, appealing human being -- a friend, somehow, beyond that limelight divide. The connection she creates is not just a matter of craft; it's the work of a generous soul.


Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life

Musical with book by Terrence McNally and original songs by Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty

Directed and choreographed by: Graciela Daniele. Set, Loy Arcenas. Lights, Beverly Emmons. Costumes, Toni-Leslie James.

Produced by the Broadway Across America at the Colonial Theatre, through Sunday . Tickets: $32.50-87.50. 617-931-2787,