When the average American hears the name, Rosita Dolores Alverío, it usually doesn't cause anything to pop into their heads. However, when one hears the iconic name, Rita Moreno, several productions immediately come to mind from television's The Electric Company, to Broadway's The Ritz, and of course, as Anita in West Side Story.
In Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, Moreno chronicles her life from her Puerto Rican childhood to her youth in New York City, experiences in Hollywood, and eventually her move to Berkeley, CA 17 years ago. The show is easily the best solo performance thus far this year, and this is based on the last of the preview nights, Sep. 6th. It's directed by David Galligan; written by Berkeley Repertory's Artistic Director, Tony Taccone; and developed by Taccone with Moreno.
As she approaches her 80th birthday this December, she is still as beautiful and sexy as ever. And one can't help but wonder how she is still able to perform exceptionally as well as she does with her 5' 2 1/2" body frame even after knee replacement surgery earlier this year.
From the opening, Moreno is vivacious and full of energy as she describes her journey with her mother in 1937 on the SS Carabobo (aka SS "Stupid Face") from Puerto Rico to New York City, where they are greeted by the Statue of Liberty. They soon move into crowded apartment buildings where she learns about other cultures, including one five-story building with different smells as she describes it for each floor.
She then gives details of studying dance from Paco Cansino, film legend Rita Hayworth's uncle. Additionally, she learns to dance with castinets and imitates another legend, Carmen Miranda. She also talks about idolizing Betty Grable and going to Harlem just to have the curls of her hair straightened out, experiencing excruciating pain.
After performing for friends and smaller venues, Moreno is discovered by one of MGM's Louis B. Mayer's scouts who eventually arranges a meeting with Mayer himself at the Waldorf Astoria. Mayer declares her as the "Spanish Elizabeth Taylor" and signs her to a seven-year deal, which included the film, The Toast of New Orleans.
In Hollywood, she tells the audience of her first encounters with other industry legends such as Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Taylor herself. Furthermore, she talks about her experiences in other films including: Pagan Love Song (with Esther Williams); The Lieutenant Wore Skirts; and Singing in The Rain as Zelda Zanders (with Gene Kelly). One of the highlights of the show is Moreno's dance & song number escorted by two male dancers with "Gotta Dance" from Singing in The Rain which included her climbing a black steel-railed ladder that had each step lighting up as she went up.
Moreno is accompanied by those two magnificent dancers, Ray Garcia & Salvatore Vassallo, and they're certainly no slouch as entertainers themselves. Garcia's precise movements & isolated dance sequences together with jaw-dropping tumbling runs by Vassallo are parts of some the most awesome choreography in Bay Area theatre this year put together by Lee Martino.
Then, she entails the audience about settling for smaller roles as Hollywood couldn't figure out how to use her in their films and while her family needed the money. Some of those films included: The Fabulous Senorita; Fort Vengeance; and Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation. MGM ended up releasing her from her contract early before Fox studios signed her to a deal.
Moreno also talked about her dating life, including going out with a 56-year old executive when she was 17. Not long after these moments, she talks about one of her most memorable roles as Tuptim in The King and I with Yul Bryner & Deborah Kerr. She was reluctantly happy for beating out her Asian peer, France Nguyen, for this role.
She continues the show with some details of her personal life and the struggles of discrimination as well as Hollywood stereotypes, including being nearly raped at a Columbia pictures party, where she ran out the back yard to escape as Mexican gardeners ended up taking her home. And to close the first half of the show, she talks about the egocentric Marlon Brando and being in a relationship with him for over five years, which included an occasion she made him jealous by dating one of entertainment's icon. That icon will not be revealed here, the reader must go to the show to find out who that is.
To open the second half, she briefly touches on West Side Story, but there will be more on that film much later. She continued the second half by discussing another of her favorite characters, Googie Gomez in The Ritz which earned her the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in 1975. And for this portion, she, Garcia, and Vassallo do another incredible song & dance number in which Moreno was carried onstage by both men.
She then talks more about Broadway and finally meeting the love of her life, the late Dr. Leonard (Lenny) Gordon. It's clear she misses and passionately reminisces about him. Thereafter, she talks about Mike Nichols and Jack Nicholson in another one of her favorite roles as Louise in the film Carnal Knowledge. The film was controversial but critically acclaimed in 1971 for its sexually explicit contents.
The birth of the Gordons' daughter, Fernanda (who also influenced her & Dr. Gordon with regards to moving to Berkeley), was truly life changing for the legendary actress, as she decided to be a part of the Children's Television Network's The Electric Company as Pandora with other screen legends, Morgan Freeman, and Bill Cosby. She states that she took on this show specifically for her daughter despite of being ridiculed by industry peers who told her she would never again be cast in more meaningful roles. They couldn't have been more mistaken.
Finally, she closes out the show with Garcia & Vassallo with numbers from West Side Story, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1962. They sung & danced to "Mambo" and "America", songs that are now part of American culture & Broadway lore. She discusses in detail the "hatred" played in and out of filming the scenes between the Sharks and the Jets, and how Jerome Robbins for all his great work was fired for being over the film's budget.
However, she had the time of her life, and the Oscar gave her some leverage in the business. For over seven years, she rejected any stereotypical roles offered to her such as Mexican whorehouse madams. In fact, a casting director tried to trick her into a role during an audition, but she walked out of that audition.
The technical portions of Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup were simply magnificent. Anna Louizos scenic design was perfect as it included the lit ladder and the scrim for the musicians during a few of the musical selections. Next, Annie Smart's costume design were more than appropriate for all three performers, especially for The Ritz number.
Some nice video & lighting designs by Alexander V. Nichols were featured in the show, such as: excellent light transitions; photos that were photoshopped for comedic effects on occasions; and video clips from Moreno's film and television productions. In addition, Phillip G. Allen's sound design was outstanding for the show. And musical direction by César Cancino was just superb.
Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup performs Tue-Sat thru Oct. 30, 2011 @ Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St, Berkeley CA 94704. For show times, tickets prices, and availability, call (510) 647-2949 or click on the links below:
Discounted tickets: http://www.goldstar.com/events/berkeley-ca/rita-moreno-life-without-makeup