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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Chita Rivera lived to entertain. Here are 9 memorable performances.

Chita Rivera does her makeup before a performance of the musical “Nine,” at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in New York, May 15, 2003. A quadruple threat, Rivera could make a lasting impression in minutes, whether onstage or onscreen. (Richard Perry/The New York Times)

By Elisabeth Vincentelli

Chita Rivera, who died Tuesday at 91, was known for her extraordinary artistry. Yet, it is hard to comprehend the full scope of her talent because, like so many Broadway performers of her generation, much of her best work was not captured on screen. Her Anita in the landmark 1957 Broadway production of “West Side Story”? Rita Moreno took it on in the Hollywood adaptation. Rose in the hit “Bye Bye Birdie,” from 1960? That role went to Janet Leigh in the movie. Only in 1969 did Rivera make her feature-film debut, in “Sweet Charity,” almost two decades after her Broadway debut. Thankfully, we have variety shows, TV specials and unofficial fan videos to help us patch together a compelling video portrait. Her life force bursts through in every second.

Here’s a look back at some of those indelible moments.

‘This Could Be the Start of Something’ (1962)

Although this song is closely associated with its writer, Steve Allen, Rivera made it her own in this appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1962. The dancers welcome her by singing “Hey, Chita! Like, wow!” and that pretty much sums it all up. Rivera did not need a whole show to make an impact: She could deliver a knockout punch in just a few minutes. Not only did the era’s variety shows provide perfect settings for those self-contained gems, but they also introduced her to a national audience.

‘I Believe in You’ (1964)

Rivera easily held her own against the best, including Judy Garland. The two women performed a duet of this song from “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” on Garland’s variety show in January 1964. On that same episode, Rivera also blew the roof off the studio with “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” a number from “Porgy and Bess” re-imagined as a va-va-voom dance extravaganza choreographed by Peter Gennaro.

‘Blue Is a Color’ (1965)

Triple threat? Make that a quadruple one, because Rivera possessed the elusive quality known as charisma that is necessary to drive cabaret acts and variety shows. That is where you could fully experience her explosiveness as a pure entertainer, where she matched the elite likes of Ann-Margret and Liza Minnelli. Devised by Jack Cole, whom Rivera called “the quintessential West Coast choreographer,” this intoxicating performance turned up on a 1965 episode of ABC’s “The Hollywood Palace.” (Rivera’s “Pretty for Me,” three years later on the same show, ranks among the most fabulously camp numbers ever seen on television.”)

‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’ (1969)

It feels incredible, in hindsight, that it took so long for Rivera to be cast in a movie. After playing the title role during the first national tour of “Sweet Charity” in 1967, she was not entirely happy to be cast in the supporting role of Nickie for the Bob Fosse adaptation two years later. But it was something, and she even got to lead a big rooftop number. In this classic barnstormer, the best friends Charity (Shirley MacLaine), Helene (Paula Kelly) and Nickie dance up their dreams of escaping their current reality as taxi dancers. The number is so exhilaratingly that by the end you are convinced that absolutely nothing could stand in their way. And, of course, it’s Rivera who is leading the charge.

‘Nowadays’/‘Hot Honey Rag’ (1976)

Rivera and Gwen Verdon sang a two-song medley from “Chicago” on “The Mike Douglas Show” in June 1976. By then they had been playing Velma and Roxie — roles they originated — for a year, and knew the characters and Fosse’s moves inside out. This is pure, unadulterated Broadway fabulousness: bask in it. (Make sure to stick around for the post-performance interview.)

‘Shriners’ Ballet’ (1982)

Rivera originated the role of Rose in the Broadway production of “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1960, but she lost the part to Leigh — in a black wig (don’t get us started) — in the movie version. You can hear her take on “Spanish Rose” (a number dropped from the movie, wisely, considering the recasting) on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and Rivera revived Gower Champion’s choreography for “Shriners’ Ballet” in this 1980s cable special — making clear that Broadway knew how to be saucy in the early 1960s. As she put it in her recent memoir, “No matter who steps into Rosie’s shoes, she’ll always be mine.”

‘Where You Are’ (1993)

Brent Carver set up Rivera’s big number at the 1993 Tony Awards, where they represented the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” This was a fitting framing since, Rivera wrote in her memoir, Carver helped her find her character, a fantastical diva who happens to be a figment of his character’s imagination. The show marked Rivera’s triumphant return to Broadway after seven years away, and she won her second Tony.

‘How Lucky Can You Get’ (2000)

Rivera had a long association with Kander and Ebb, but this song from her solo act is not actually from one of their shows, much less one she appeared in. Rather it’s from the movie “Funny Lady,” which means that she had to go against the memory of Barbra Streisand. No problem! This is just a sterling illustration of Rivera acting a number as much as singing it. The song revs up in the most thrilling way, and Rivera rises to the challenge.

‘Folies Bergère’ (2003)

Rivera put on a French accent in 2003 to portray aging showgirl Liliane La Fleur (created by Liliane Montevecchi) in a revival of the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit musical “Nine.” Naturally, she made a meal of this nostalgic ode to a faded era of entertainment and glamour.

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