BACKSTAGE: Chita Rivera, Big Premiere for 'Anastasia' & Yale Actor Breaks Out

Photo by Laura Marie Duncan

Just say one word — “Chita” — to any Broadway baby and there’s a virtual genuflection. From West Side Story to Bye Bye Birdie to Kiss of the Spider Women and last season’s The Visit, the triple-threat has been synonymous with music, dance and perseverance. At 83, she may be more circumspect in what she undertakes, but there are still projects to do, including a recent run at New York’s Cafe Carlyle where she sang some of her favorite songs and told tales from her 65-year career.

It’s also always nice to be honored — and help a theater fundraise, too — so she’ll be receiving the Goodspeed Award at Goodspeed Musical’s annual gala July 11. I chatted with Chita, who said she was especially happy to receive the honor from the opera house’s executive director, Michael Gennaro, son of choreographer Peter Gennaro, who guided her steps in West Side Story (including staging the iconic “America” number). And her advice to Janet Dacal, who will play Rose in Goodspeed’s revival of Bye Bye Birdie this summer? “I’m a firm believer of ‘if it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it,’ and those characters are written brilliantly. All kids have to do is just do the show as written. It’s perfectly balanced.” She also has some advice for young actors: “I tell the kids you have to be ready for anything that happens. Be ready for it! And I try to be ready for anything, too.”

goodspeed.orgManoel Felciano and Christy Altomare in Anastasia at the Hartford Stage. Photo by Joan Marcus

Fairy tale endings

The princess’ tiaras have all been packed up after Hartford Stage’s hit run of the premiere of its Broadway-bound musical Anastasia, the second super-grosser of the season following the record-breaking Rear Window, starring Kevin Bacon. But the show’s lyricist, Lynn Ahrens, says despite mostly glowing reviews (my Variety review called it “stunningly staged, emotionally rich and expertly crafted”) the creative team will be busy “worrying and waiting and fine-tuning” the show until it opens in New York. No date or theater has yet been announced. When I talked to Ahrens, she pointed out the show is much different in tone than the 1997 animated film for which she and composer Stephen Flaherty created the tunes (and received an Oscar nomination for “Journey to the Past”). “[Tony Award-winning librettist] Terrence McNally took a standard show and made it something much more emotionally enriching. It’s not for 5-year-olds. We don’t have a talking bat and Rasputin, but it has so much in scope and epic quality. It’s a thoughtful and beautiful musical.” The out-of-town process in Hartford was “a very tiring, grueling and painstaking one that called for lots of stamina. I took my vitamins every day.”

hartfordstage.orgFrom left, Curtis Wiley, Ato Blankson-Wood and Jahi Kearse in The Total Bent, running at The Public Theater in New York City. Photo by Joan Marcus

‘A breakout performance’

When Ato Blankson-Wood was at the Yale School of Drama a few years ago, he got lots of experience in productions like He Left Quietly, Platonov and, memorably, as former YSD grad Lupita Nyong’o in Yale Cabaret’s Yale School of Drag show, wearing a version of the Oscar-winning actress’ iconic red carpet dress. Now he’s tearing up The Public Theater in New York in The Total Bent, the new musical by one-named, musician-playwright Stew (Passing Strange). “Ato Blankson-Wood gives a breakout performance of wry wit and musical intensity,” wrote New York Times critic Charles Isherwood.

Prior to Yale, Blankson-Wood was on Broadway in Hair and Lysistrata Jones, but felt he “needed a more intense form of training.” Now, that training has given him a foundation for a role he personally connects with in The Total Bent. “[My character] just wants to be heard and be seen and he wants to make his way in the world and express himself. I very much know what that feels like. He wants his work to mean something. So for me, it wasn’t a stretch. I want all of those things, too.”Weighty subject

Born Fat (photo at right by Paul Roth) had its premiere earlier this year at Waterbury’s Seven Angels Theatre. Now the solo show starring April Woodall will get its New York bow at the Midtown International Theater Festival at the Workshop Theatre, 312 W. 36th St. (July 20 at 6 p.m., July 22 at 8:15 p.m. and July 24 at 1 p.m). Connecticut playwright Jacques Lamarre (I Love, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti) says he felt “a bit like a hypocrite” when he was writing the show about a woman’s life-long struggle with diets, “based on a true story of my friend Elizabeth Petruccione who went from 250 pounds to 157 and has since gone on to be a weight-loss guru. (The show’s clever tagline is “The weight is over.”) “I was at the heaviest I have ever been as I was writing and getting productions of this play about weight loss — and not learning its lessons. I’ve pledged that I would lose 20 pounds by the time the show plays New York. So far I’ve lost four.”

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Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.