"I've always loved Kansas City," Rivera says of her upcoming stint in Casper -- The Musical, the lone kiddie show in a Starlight Theatre season that includes the PG-13 Chorus Line and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Rivera plays Magdalena Montezuma, a "villain who's all about greed," in a show full of kids and special effects that one writer accuses of "copyright-skirting" Ghostbusters.
"She's a little Cruella De Vil and a little Miss Hannigan," Rivera says, referring to the misanthropic mistresses from 101 Dalmatians and Annie -- "and a lot of fun to play." However, Rivera declines to comment on whether there's much truth behind the saying that circulates among performers: You shouldn't work with animals or -- in this case -- children.
Rivera's name brings the show added cachet, a shrewd move to get more than kids in the seats. With a resume that includes the original Broadway productions of West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman, she doesn't have to pretend Casper is any ultimate kind of career plateau. Rivera goes where the work takes her and, besides, four cities into the tour, she'll take off to work on The Visit, a collaboration with author Terrence McNally and composers John Kander (a Kansas City native) and Fred Ebb. The production premieres at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in September. "Any time you combine John, who is one of my five best friends in the world and the dearest person, and Fred and Terrence, I'm in," she says.
The foursome did quite well by one another in Spider Woman, and drama queens are foaming at the mouth to see Rivera step into the shoes of Angela Lansbury, who left The Visit after a 1999 staged reading. In the show, directed by Ragtime's Frank Galati and choreographed by Ann Reinking, Rivera no doubt will give a juicy performance when she plays the part of Claire Zachannassian, the richest woman in the world, who returns to her humble hometown to bribe the locals into destroying the man who spurned her in her youth.
Rivera does sound more excited to bite into that role than the one bringing her to Kansas City.
After Casper logged a two-month special engagement in London for the 1999 winter season, it failed to make the Atlantic crossover to New York. It did, however, produce an original cast CD and hasn't given up on that brass ring. The show has been revamped, and the summer tour is intended to whet producers' appetites.
Whatever the fate of Casper -- The Musical, Rivera insists that her fans have yet to see the definitive Chita Rivera. "Of course," she says, "the best is yet to come."