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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Chita Rivera, electrifying star of Broadway and beyond, is dead at 91

Chita Rivera, the musical theater icon, at 54 Below in Manhattan, May 17, 2019. (Daniel Dorsa/The New York Times)

By Robert D. McFadden

Chita Rivera, the fire-and-ice dancer, singer and actress who leapt to stardom in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story” and dazzled audiences for nearly seven decades as a Puerto Rican lodestar of the American musical theater, died on Tuesday in New York. She was 91.

The death was announced in a statement by her daughter, Lisa Mordente. It gave no other details.

To generations of musical aficionados, Rivera was a whirling, bounding, high-kicking elemental force of the dance; a seductive singer of smoky ballads and sizzling jazz; and a propulsive actress of vaudevillian energy. She appeared in scores of stage productions in New York and London, logged 100,000 miles on cabaret tours and performed in dozens of films and television programs.

On Broadway, she created a string of memorably hard-edged women — Anita in “West Side Story” (1957), Rosie in “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960), the murderous floozy Velma Kelly in “Chicago” (1975) and the title role in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993). She sang enduring numbers in those roles: “America” in “West Side Story,” “One Boy” and “Spanish Rose” in “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “All That Jazz” in “Chicago.”

As a singer and actress, Rivera was largely self-taught, though she received an on-the-job education from some of the foremost pedagogues in the pantheon: choreographers Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, and playwright Terrence McNally.

In 1986, Rivera had to suspend her dancing life when a taxi collided with her car in Manhattan, shattering her left leg in a dozen places. She underwent two surgeries, with screws and plates used to reconnect her bones, followed by months of rehabilitation. For many dancers, the injuries might have been career-ending, but almost a year after the accident she began dancing again, easing her way back with cabaret acts that sustained her for years.

In “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” an autobiographical retrospective presented on Broadway in 2005, she delivered a tango about the men in her past, a dance sequence for Fosse, Robbins and other choreographers, and a medley of her musical highlights, including “A Boy Like That” from “West Side Story” and “All That Jazz” from “Chicago.”

“At 72, she still has the voice, the attitude and — oh, yes — the legs to magnetize all eyes in an audience,” Ben Brantley wrote in a review for the Times. “She is a pro’s pro in a world of exacting judgments and mythic standards. It feels right that ‘The Dancer’s Life’ should present her as the ultimate gypsy made good, the talented trouper who got the right breaks.”

Rivera was showered with honors during her long career. She won two Tony Awards for best actress in a musical, for “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”; was nominated for eight others; and in 2018 received a special Tony for lifetime achievement. In 2002, she became the first Hispanic American woman to receive Kennedy Center Honors, the capital’s version of the Oscars, in a group that included Elizabeth Taylor, James Earl Jones and Paul Simon.

In 2009, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony.

It was the culmination of an odyssey that began a few miles away in Washington on Jan. 23, 1933, with the birth of Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, the third of five children of Pedro Julio and Katherine (Anderson) del Rivero.

Her father, who was born in Puerto Rico, played the clarinet and saxophone with the U.S. Navy Band and the Harry James Orchestra. He died when Conchita was 7. Her mother, who was of Scottish, Irish and Puerto Rican descent and also had African American ancestors, which she discovered late in life, became a clerk at the Pentagon and enrolled Conchita in singing, dance and piano lessons. Dancing became her passion. On the advice of her teacher, she auditioned for George Balanchine and won a scholarship to his School of American Ballet in New York City.

Living with an uncle’s family in the Bronx, she graduated from William Howard Taft High School in 1951. At an open call for dancers, she won a part with a national touring company of Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam.” After 10 months on the road, she replaced Onna White as a principal dancer in “Guys and Dolls” in New York. Over the next few years, she danced in “Seventh Heaven,” “Shoestring Revue” and “Mr. Wonderful.” Her career moved up. She shortened her name to a catchy Chita Rivera.

In 1957, Rivera married Anthony Mordente, a dancer in “West Side Story.” They divorced in 1966. In addition to her daughter, Lisa, she is survived by two brothers, Julio and Armando; and a sister, Lola del Rivero. Rivera lived in Rockland County, New York.

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