Chita RiveraIt’s not every week you get to gaze upon a living legend of the stage and screen in the American Midwest. Sure, Chicago sees its fair share of theater kings and grand dames of the Great White Way, but it never has the same sharp, poignant air of magic that comes with a crowd that isn’t always blessed with such opportunities.

So you can imagine my awe and delight when I heard one of Golden Hollywood’s and Broadway’s Best: Chita Rivera would be near my hometown. This — well, let’s just say it — national treasure of the arts and entertainment industry visited the beautiful Carmel Palladium in late September and I’m still reeling from the honor.

The magnificent Chita Rivera dazzled us with the brilliance you can only expect from a woman who’s seen it all and done it all. Her one woman show, Chita: A Legendary Celebration, on September 25th lit up the stage and left us all walking away beaming from ear to ear. Accompanied by
a bass player, guitarist and piano virtuoso, Ms. Rivera shared an abbreviated story of her career in show business from her early days when she adopted the moniker “Chita” from “Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero” to her funny, but brief cameo in the Rob Marshall film version of Chicago.

The evening was full of rich tales and anecdotes peppered with names of friends and co-stars that can only be heard from an 81-year-old headliner. For example, she told us how the cast of Seventh Heaven thought she and her leading man Ricardo Montalban were having an affair because they’d both disappear for a couple of hours between the Saturday matinee and the 8 o’clock curtain every week. Turns out, the two devout Catholics were going to early evening mass. Shame on them!

She spoke highly and often of her decades’ long relationship with John Kander and Fred Ebb. As a matter of fact, working with two of the greatest heavyweights of the American Musical tradition led her to re-create her starring role in The Visit this past summer in the Williamstown Theatre Festival. That’s right! Ms. Rivera is still singing up a storm for mature audiences who remember the “good ol’ days” and for younger audiences who are smart enough to know that Broadway doesn’t make ’em like her anymore.

Chita RiveraTo understand what I mean, you have to see this still spry, still flexible, still very vivacious octogenarian cut a rug on stage like she’s not a day over 35. When she wasn’t delighting us with stories about her friendship with Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Zeta Jones and Gwen Verdon, she was singing songs from her iconic roles in West Side StoryThe Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Chicago. It was during this moment it suddenly hit me that I’m watching a woman who has starred in the original productions of some of the most recognizable mainstays of musical theater. Not the revivals, ladies and gentlemen. The originals.

Guys and Dolls. Can-Can. Bye Bye Birdie. Just a few more originals if you’re not yet impressed.

That’s Chita’s legacy. And anyone who had the chance to see her in Nine with Antonio Banderas in 2003 can attest to fact they she’s not someone to simply rest on her legacy. The theater geek in me was also happy to hear that Ms. Rivera actively encourages new musicals and supports up-and-coming shows born from the fresh minds of creatives determined to make sure Broadway doesn’t become a revival graveyard that only celebrates the past without nurturing the future. (Hint: Her pianist, Michael Patrick Walker, was the co-creator of the Off-Broadway hit, Altar Boyz.)

After the dancing, the stories and the feather boa made their final appearance, the evening drew to a close on a beautiful note. Literally. Ms. Rivera said good-bye with a song from her latest album, And Now I Swing, that expresses a humble appreciation for her fans, family and friends who’ve shared her memories over the years: “Circle of Friends“.

Now if you recall, a few years back I dared to stay behind and wait for the singular sensation Savion Glover to come out after his show so I could grab his autograph. Well, rest assured, that’s not something I normally do. I’m always afraid I’ll come across as a stalker or worse, dull. I broke from my routine that time and met a future icon of the dance world. So there’s no way I couldn’t take that chance now and do the same for a current icon of the … everything.

Yes, I — along with one equally zealous musical theater fan — waited outside by the exit to see if we could grab a quick word and an autograph. And good fortune smiled on us. After a fairly short wait, Ms. Rivera’s assistant waved us over and we spent a few minutes telling her how much we enjoyed the show and asking for autographs. She was kind, warm and didn’t seem at all put off by enthusiasm, which for me translated into standing there a wee bit dumbstruck while she signed and kissed my program with a flourish. Yes, she kissed my program. I have the Kiss of the Spider Woman’s kiss as a part of my permanent fan collection now.

Program from Chita showI did my best to keep my cool while my counterpart got an autograph and picture taken with the lady of the hour. During that moment, at least 10 questions flew threw my mind but all of them sounded too corny, dumb or rude to utter out loud.

“Who was your favorite leading man to work with?”

“Have you lost track of how many times you’ve been mistaken for Rita Moreno?”

“Do you have any idea how many times I’ve watched the ‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’ number from Sweet Charity and sang all of your and Paula Kelly’s lines? I know them by heart even today. Want to hear … ?”

But thankfully, I kept quiet. If Ms. Rivera found my beaming, yet placid face unnerving, she didn’t let on. Instead, she thanked my partner-in-crime and I for coming, then made her way over to the car waiting to take her back to her hotel. And I headed home with a special memory of my own: That one time I met a living legend.