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CHITA RIVERA: THE DANCER'S LIFE ** 1/2 Schoenfeld Theatre, 234 W. 45th St., between Eighth Avenue and Broadway; (212) 239-6200.

WHAT, as those ads used to ask, becomes a legend most? How about a show-and-tell evening devoted to your life and times?

So, This is Your Life, Chita Rivera, and it is all - the public part of it, at least - up on display, starting last night at the Schoenfeld Theatre.

"Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life" starring - there could hardly be an understudy unless Philip Seymour Hoffman wanted to volunteer - the 72-year-old Rivera in the still-astounding flesh, is a sweetheart of a show.

This ardent love letter to one of the theater's adored divas is also an invitation to her multitude of fans to take a visit with her and enjoy a far from simply nostalgic stroll down a lane called Broadway.

But, to be honest, it's not that much more. For many - and I am among Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero's most happily fluttering fans - it ought to be enough. The less committed should beware.

For this is essentially a one-woman bio-show, with a crisp, sometimes tart and always bright script by master playwright Terrence McNally, sensibly filled out by a splendid chorus line of vintage Broadway gypsies to give fresh life to the reminiscences and its musical landscape.

There is a ghost of a skeletal framework to the show, starting and ending it in Washington, D.C., Rivera's birthplace, and where, in December 2002, she received the Kennedy Center Honor, the nation's most prestigious award for accomplishment in the arts.

Along the way, she tells us stories - about the affair she had with Sammy Davis Jr., what she learned from touring with Elaine Stritch and, most illuminatingly, brilliantly describes the work methods of her choreographers, from Jack Cole to Bob Fosse and, the one who influenced her most, Jerome Robbins.

She also does clever but affectionate caricature impressions of some of her friends and co-stars, catching beautifully, say, the vocal mannerisms of Gwen Verdon's plaintive vibrato or the breathy huskiness of Liza Minnelli.

But the meat and potatoes of "The Dancer's Life" is the dance and that dancer's singing, which also played an enormous role in Rivera's success.

The singing is a delight, especially when she offers her three, strikingly different versions of "A Boy Like That" from "West Side Story" when she auditioned for composer Leonard Bernstein.

Yet this is a dancer's life, and the director and choreographer Graciela Daniele does a great job both with Chita and her cherry-picked, handsomely talented band of nine gypsies, not to mention the happy little girl, Liana Ortiz, who plays Chita as a child.

Daniele seamlessly incorporates other choreographies and dance styles into the fabric of the show, and makes the ever-youthful Rivera look great alongside her dance colleagues.

It's a lovely show for Chita fans and Broadway buffs. The less initiated might find it at times puzzling if still essentially easygoing.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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