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Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup — A Life in the Theatre

By Tom W. Kelly
Published: Bay Times - September 22, 2011

Actress, singer and dancer (aka triple threat) Rita Moreno shares her life story at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup. Her graciousness, humility and generosity make the 2-1/2 hour show an absolute delight. And her life story proves to be as much of an inspiration as a cautionary tale.

“I want so bad to be somebody… somebody special.” In 1936 Moreno and her mother left Puerto Rico and arrived in NYC, certifiably impoverished. Her talent as a dancer (and her sheer determination) gets her noticed, and by the time she turns 16, she is signed up for a 7-year contract with MGM studio. The exaltations and dregs of success ensue.

Actress Moreno hosts the evening with style and sensitivity. Opening in an attractive dark-red pantsuit and matching seed-pearl necklace (simple yet elegant costuming by Annie Smart), she displays a relaxed confidence and welcoming nature. She keeps the pace moving with determination, yet takes the time needed for more dramatic moments. Life on the wicked stage (as well as on the “big screen”) ain’t no place for a young girl, and Moreno shares some shocking moments (near-rape at a Hollywood party) as well as her heart’s true love (and heartbreak)… the “romantic sinkhole” known as Marlon Brando.

Singer Moreno exhibits an excellent pitch with sweet tones. A woman of incredible range, she sings a variety of songs, including “The Hate Song” (which she sang in the television show The Electric Company), an hysterical recreation of Googie Gomez’s show-stopper from the film The Ritz, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and more. Many LGBTQ audience members will remember that crazy gay film when gay films were not “the craze” (note: Moreno’s over-the-top performance in The Ritz garnered her a Tony award).

Dancer Moreno cautiously re-creates the moves that wowed audiences years ago, allowing her two sexy male back-up dancers (Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo) to do the more difficult choreography. The two dynamite dance numbers from West Side Story are wondrous reminders of the film’s glorious moments (and here, Moreno graciously acknowledges that Chita Rivera originated the role of Anita in the Broadway production… forever joining them at the hip).

Written by Tony Taccone (Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director), this world premiere could do with a bit of judicious editing. Perhaps one number from West Side Story, instead of two. Perhaps a bit less time in Act One about her early childhood. But Taccone is a shrewd theatre professional, and following the audience’s responses night after night will certainly guide him to trim it to the finest moments.

Staged and directed by David Galligan with a skillful simplicity, the audience focuses completely on Moreno and her life story. Back-wall projections (video and lighting by Alexander V. Nichols) instantaneously provide locations as well as feature various snippets from her films. César Cancino conducts the superb onstage (behind the back curtain) band, which features Cancino (piano), Sascha Jacobsen (bass), Alex Murzyn (reeds) and David Rokeach (percussion).

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup offers Bay Area audiences a unique opportunity to meet the woman who earned herself an Oscar (West Side Story), a Tony (The Ritz), two Emmys (The Rockford Files and The Muppet Show) and a Grammy (The Electric Company). But all those accolades aside, the show is terrific!

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup continues until Oct. 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets ($29+), call (510) 647-2949 or at berkeleyrep.org.

Rita Moreno in Rita Moreno:
Life Without Makeup.
Photo by Kevin Berne.