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This undated photo made available by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows Chita Rivera in a performance of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" in New York.

Joan Marcus, Associated Press - Ap

Chita Rivera, almost 80, can't sit still

  • Article by: MARK KENNEDY
  • Associated Press
  • November 23, 2012 - 10:31 AM

NEW YORK - Even when she should be relaxing, Chita Rivera just can't.

Currently starring in the ensemble musical "The Mystery Of Edwin Drood," the two-time Tony Award-winning singer, dancer and actress spends some time backstage during the show in her dressing room — and isn't used to it.

"I play solitaire. I read. I'm thinking of doing needlepoint," she says with a big laugh. "In my DNA, I'm a dancer and we don't sit still. It's just a different formula. I'm loving it. But it's different."

Rivera has to share the spotlight with a zany cast that includes Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, Gregg Edelman, Jim Norton, Jessie Mueller and Andy Karl. Everyone is having so much fun that the show is slowly getting a little longer every night as the cast overacts deliciously.

Rivera, making her first return to Broadway since her musical "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life" landed in 2005, gets the biggest applause. She plays Princess Puffer, a brothel owner, and sings several songs, including "The Wages of Sin."

In the new show — written by Rupert Holmes and inspired by the unfinished novel of the same name by Charles Dickens — the audience is called on to weigh in on resolutions to the story, either by a show of hands or clapping. The customers decide what is a mysterious detective's real identity, who the murderer is at the heart of the play, and which couple from among the cast should fall in love.

For the cast, that means memorizing multiple endings and quickly being able to shift into the new role. "I just want to be the lover," says Rivera, and she usually is.

Rivera originated some of theater's most memorable roles, including Anita in 1957's "West Side Story," Rose in 1960's "Bye Bye Birdie," Velma in 1975's "Chicago" and the title role in 1993's "Kiss of the Spider Woman," the second of her two Tony wins. She still hopes that a lost Fred Ebb and John Kander musical that she champions, "The Visit," will make it to Broadway.

Early next year she hits 80, but Rivera — still sexy, still vibrant, always funny — hates thinking about it and refuses to acknowledge the number. This is a woman, after all, who clambered back on stage to dance in 1988 after being in an almost fatal car accident two years earlier that crushed her right leg and required 12 screws to fix.

Even Superstorm Sandy couldn't stop her. She rode out the storm in her upstate New York home near Nyack with her dogs and her daughter, choreographer and singer Lisa Mordente. They had no power for 11 days and stood in line for gas.

"The lesson I got from this is: generator," she says.

The Associated Press sat down with Rivera to talk about the show, her birthday and if heat really rises.

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AP: Everyone in the cast seems to be having so much fun onstage. Are you really?

Rivera: Oh, we are. We really are. But I believe there's a danger. Timing is everything. Shape and form is everything. The word is everything. And there has got to be control. When you give a bunch of actors that kind of freedom, you've got to look at that, because it's starting to stretch a little bit already. There is a freedom that's delicious, but there's also a danger.

AP: Is it strange performing in a show where the ending is up in the air?

Rivera: I love the fact that the audience is involved, even though I'm from the old school — I do like having a beginning, a middle and an end. You know what you're doing. In this, when I get offstage and they tell me I'm the murderer, I have to quickly go over the lines again. And that means I'm not the lover since nobody can be the lover if you're the murderer.

AP: How did you fare with no electricity after Sandy?

Rivera: It was so cold and terribly dark. We tried it for a few days. And I moved around from bedroom to bedroom to see if heat really does rise and how long it stays.

AP: And the answer?

Rivera: It's cold.

AP: You've been touring for these past few years. How has the theater scene changed?

Rivera: I don't think we have enough original musicals. I really don't. I know I'm being old fashioned but the theater is the place where music, lyrics, words, scenery and stories come together. And I've been blessed enough to have done several shows when they really did. They take you places and they're daring. That's what we need.

AP: You are approaching a rather important birthday. How does that feel?

Rivera: Age just seems, to me, ridiculous, because I'm blessed. I'm lucky. I'm doing what I love to do. I still can. And I have the sense to know what I can't do and what I should do.

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Online: http://www.roundabouttheatre.org

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Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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