These divas drive the show

In the current world of Broadway diva-dom, Bernadette Peters and Chita Rivera are burning up center stage in two demanding roles.

For Ms. Peters, starring as the role model of all stage-mothers, Mama Rose, in "Gypsy" it's a chance to amaze her fans by playing against type. For Ms. Rivera in "Nine," her role as a French film producer is proof that a veteran with moxie can blow the other actors off the stage, even when cornered in a smaller part.

The countdown to the theater-award season begins this month, and both performers already have a solid start. Rivera has garnered nominations from the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk, while Peters received a Drama Desk nomination as well, plus a glowing review from The New York Times. The Tony nominations will be announced next Monday, but each has a pair to her credit: Ms. Peters for "Annie Get Your Gun" (1999) and "Song and Dance" (1986); Ms. Rivera for "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1993) and "The Rink" (1984).

Talent, of course, experience honed over decades, and the stamina to deliver a rousing performance night after night certainly account for some of the magnetism, but the element of surprise wrapped into each new role means even more.

As La Fleur, in the revival of "Nine," adapted from Federico Fellini's film, "8 1/2," Rivera has only one number - "Folies Bergères" - but it has been expanded into a minimusical of its own, complete with chorus girls and a tango which she dances with Spanish stage and film star Antonio Banderas in his American stage debut.

During the song, Rivera breaks character, a risky move and a jolt to those watching, to speak directly to several men in the audience.

Changing the dialogue each night, she asks which one sent her flowers. "Because I mention two dozen white roses, I have received bouquets of them from some of the men I have spoken to," she says during a recent interview.

Ms. Peters looks like the eternal ingenue, with her kewpie-doll features and tendrils edging her cheeks, yet she took on the role of the ugly witch in Stephen Sondheim's "Into The Woods" in 1987.

Although Peters reverted to a young girl as Annie Oakley ("Annie Get Your Gun"), theater insiders wondered if she could make audiences believe her as the formidable stage mother. In a bit of casting that sounds prophetic in hindsight, Peters was picked for the 1961 national tour of "Gypsy" at age 13, along with her sister, who was also in the cast.

Now as Mama Rose, she makes her first entrance from the rear of the house, mounts the stairs, and remains on stage for most of each performance, to belt out nine of the score's 18 musical numbers.

Kate Reinders (see interview, left), who plays one of Mama Rose's daughters, says Peters has the weight of the world on her shoulders. "That must be the hardest role for a woman in musical theater. Every scene, she drives it. She drives the show."

"Gypsy," one of the great musicals of the 20th century stage, has been altered to fit Ms. Peters's outsize personality. Unlike Ethel Merman, who originated the character in 1959, Peters cannot disguise her femme fatale tendencies behind shapeless dresses and stout shoes. With her flirty mannerisms and posture of self-assurance, she suggests that Mama Rose might have succeeded if she had had a stage mother of her own.

Like Mama Rose's children, both Peters and Rivera started young. She started ballet lessons at age 11 and six years later, Rivera auditioned for the chorus of "Call Me Madam." So much for the dream of ballerina: She was cast as a principal dancer in the show by choreographer, Jerome Robbins, then worked steadily in the musicals "Guys and Dolls" and "Can-Can." In 1957, Robbins cast her in the dream part of fiery Anita in the Broadway première of "West Side Story."

In an eerie parallel to the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, Peters, too, had a stage mother who started her performing in public at age 3. Mom changed the last name to look better in lights (from Lazzara to Peters), and "improved" the credits on her daughter's résumé. Her strategies worked. Peters's reputation was made by age 20 when she appeared opposite Joel Grey in "George M!" and as Ruby in "Dames At Sea" in 1968.

As Mama Rose sings in "Gypsy," it's "Curtain Up, Light the Lights" eight times a week for Peters and Rivera. It could serve as their shared anthem, along with cheering crowds and names up in lights over Broadway.

Gregory M. Lamb contributed to this report.

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