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Rita Moreno shines, even with a shiner, at Feinstein’s

by David Wiegand SFGate April 23, 2017

Rita Moreno is such a good actress, you almost believe her when she says she’s not a comedian, until you double over in laughter at one of her stories, delivered with expert comic timing. She tells you she doesn’t have the voice she had when she played Anita in “West Side Story,” then she breaks your heart with an impossibly tender version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.”

Moreno thoroughly bewitched the audience Friday night, April 21, at Feinstein’s at the Nikko with a combination of song, stories from her life and still vibrant career, and, most of all, disarming charm and candor. It was the first of two sold-out shows at the club.

Early on, she apologized if her face looked odd to one side of the audience, because beneath artfully applied makeup, she was sporting “the king of shiners,” received when she fell filming a public service announcement a few days ago. The injury required three stitches but wasn’t at all visible.

Oh, the punch line: The PSA was for insurance.

“You look beautiful,” someone called from the audience.

“Thank you, Uncle Harry,” she deadpanned.

Dressed in black sequined trousers and a red sequined top beneath a waist-length white jacket, Moreno delivered “Errand Girl for Rhythm,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “But Alive,” among other songs at the head of the show, that not only demonstrated her range but strategically complemented her life story.

She turned Ary Barroso’s “Brazil” into slithery musical seduction, rapped part of “New York City Blues,” blended the plaintive “I Won’t Send Roses” with the story of a young girl who falls in love for the first time with a man destined to break her heart, and breathed new life into Harry Warren’s “Million Dollar Baby” and Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano,” last sung on the Feinstein’s stage by Michael Feinstein and Liza Minnelli.

Moreno, 85, was as candid about her age, her eight-year relationship with Marlon Brando and her dates with Elvis Presley as she was about contemporary politics. “I am this very minute living the American dream,” said the Puerto Rican-born Moreno. “And others can too if a certain person doesn’t f— it all up.”

The crowd roared its collective approval, prompting Moreno to repeat how much she loves living in the Bay Area, where she and her late husband, Dr. Leonard Gordon, moved to be closer to their daughter, Fernanda.

If anyone ever wondered what Moreno has that makes her one of only 12 people to have won a Tony, an Emmy, an Oscar and a Grammy, the answer was spilling off Feinstein’s stage: She is a peerless storyteller, whether the stories are her own experiences or the lyrics of a song, which she expertly manages to personalize. And she makes it all look completely effortless, with the help of pianist Russ Kassoff, bassist Andrew Higgins and drummer David Rokeach.

It hasn’t always been effortless, though, as she detailed in the candid book “Rita Moreno: A Memoir”: She had to play “many dusky maidens,” she told the audience, in often forgettable films before “West Side Story” earned her an Oscar. After that, she was off the screen for several years because she was only offered “gang roles.” Now she’s playing a Cuban immigrant grandmother in the reboot of “One Day at a Time” after earlier roles as Fran Drescher’s Jewish mother in “Happily Divorced” and a nun in HBO’s “Oz.”

As a little girl living in a New York tenement, she recalled, she used to drag the radio close to the window and then climb out on the fire escape on warm summer evenings, listening to the music, the noises of the night and looking up at the “billions” of stars.

“I wanted to be somebody so badly,” she said.

At this point, no one needs to be told she got her wish.

David Wiegand is an assistant managing editor and the TV critic of The San Francisco Chronicle and co-host of “The Do List” every Friday morning at 6:22 and 8:22 on KQED FM, 88.5 FM in San Francisco, 89.3 FM in Sacramento. Follow him on Facebook. Email: dwiegand@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV