review: Rita Moreno shows us who she is at 79 and she’s a force to be reckoned with in the world premiere of “Life Without Make-up,” at Berkeley Rep through October 30, 2011
At 79, Rita Moreno, the legendary star of stage and screen, has led quite a life and most of it has been an uphill battle. Her autobiographical new play Rita Moreno: Life Without Make-up, which opens Berkeley Rep’s new season, explores what that climb to the top has entailed. Moreno is just one of an elite handful of persons who have won an Oscar (supporting actress for “West Side Story”), Emmy (“The Rockford Files”), Grammy (soundtrack for “The Electric Company”), and Tony (“The Ritz”). And she is the only Latino on that list which also includes Barbra Streisand and Audrey Hepburn. In her new show, which she co-created with Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director Tony Taccone, the Puerto-Rican born star tells the story of her struggle against poverty, racism, and the sexual politics of show business in Hollywood’s Golden Age. She also offers a wealth of inside dirt about the leading men and women she interacted with―all against a stunning multimedia montage of memorable moments from her extraordinary life. She is accompanied by two expert dancers, Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, who join her to perform choreography by Lee Martino. Seeing her in person is worth the price of admission–watching her on stage, dancing and gamming it up, you wonder why she at 79 looks better than most of us do at 50.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to walk in the footsteps of such a powerhouse, you’ll come away satisfied. Moreno starts her story at age 5 as Rosita Dolores Alverio (her given name) in her native Puerto Rico with her willful mother, who is escaping poverty and an abusive marriage by hopping a boat to New York City. Tragically, her infant brother is left behind. Once in New York, she and her mother assimilate in poor neighborhoods packed with immigrants, barely scraping by. When young Moreno’s talent is discovered, it is nurtured, first and foremost by her mother who sees her young daughter as the ticket out of the barrios. When she starts Spanish dancing lessons with Rita Hayworth’s uncle, Paco Cansino, a knowledgeable instructor, Rita realizes that performing is her destiny. Through a magic combination of luck and chutzpah, she is soon off and running and begins auditioning and performing. She slowly cobbles together an identity around entertaining and by the time she is a teenager, she is acting on Broadway.
Her lucky break comes a few years later when she is discovered by a Hollywood casting agent while performing at a dance recital and is whisked off to Hollywood with a coveted MGM contract. She gushes as she recalls that the first person she met on the MGM lot was Clark Gable and then, shortly thereafter, Elizabeth Taylor whom Moreno idolized. There’s a huge “but wait” though―the film industry didn’t really know what to do with talented non-white performers in the 1940′s and Moreno was relegated to playing stereotypical Latina spitfires and Indian maidens in a spate of B-movies. One of the things Life Without Make-up does most effectively is paint a picture of what it was like to work in a Hollywood that was both racist and sexist and the constant pressures Moreno faced to fit the mold of the “ethnic utility player.” Moreno speaks directly to the audience with candor and humor about some very painful experiences. She constantly struggled to maintain a healthy sense of self as a woman and as a Latina while straightening her hair and trying to lighten her complexion to look like someone she wasn’t. One of her sadist stories recounts being mauled by movie industry bigwigs at a fancy party who claimed that she was coming on to them and then being rescued by humble Latino gardeners who respected women. Moreno had true grit though and somehow, she persevered.
A rare opportunity came when she was chosen to tango with Gene Kelly in the now classic Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Her first major break though came when she landed the role of Tuptim, the rebellious concubine, in The King and I (1956) over the Asian actress France Nguyen. In recounting this story, Moreno confesses deep regret over something that occurred but never gets into specifics. You get the idea that she may have actively campaigned for the role and there is more that she is not telling. If you’re interested in personal confessionals, that’s where Life Without Make-up falls short. If you listen carefully throughout, you’ll find Moreno’s collection of stories entertaining and poignant, and there’s also a good mix of small observations and big picture questions, but Moreno’s clever wit and sharp insights are mainly turned on those around her and on experiences that were thrust upon her. This is an expose of the entertainment industry and doesn’t really delve into Moreno’s regrets about her own actions. This seems intentional as Tony Taccone, Life Without Make-up’s writer, knows the power of brutal honesty, and owning one’s dark side. It was Taccone who collaborated with actress Carrie Fisher (of Starwars’ fame) to create her 2009 brut tour-de-force “Wishful Drinking.”
Near the end of the first act, Moreno talks about her famous love affair with Marlon Brando, whom she met on the MGM lot. She recounts quite humorously how she was totally smitten with Brando but how he was completely smitten with himself and how she started “seeing” Elvis to make him jealous. She skips her sleeping pill-swallowing suicide attempt. In another sequence, she talks about being thrust in bed with Jack Nicholson to do numerous love-making takes for the film Carnal Knowledge (1971) and how it was a source of conflict in her marriage to Leonard Gordon. There’s a lot she is not telling but that’s Hollywood!
All of her sacrifice and hard work ultimately paid off with 1961′s film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical West Side Story. As the fiery Anita, who sings and dances the show-stopping “America,” Moreno lit up the screen and earned that year’s Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. As she tells her stories, Moreno powerfully and colorfully recants the “characters” in her life–using a number of hilarious accents to complete the portraits. She outdoes herself as she tells about working with Natasha Lytess, Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach, who taught her the nuances of gesture, movement, elocution and getting in touch with her vagina. And then there’s the music and dance. Highlights include her tapping “Broadway Rhythm” from Singing in the Rain (1952) and performing “The Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story with Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo to lee Martino’s choreography. Through it all Moreno emerges as a powerhouse, lady-like but razor-sharp and never forgetting her humble past. This is a two-hour performance to be savored.
And if this review has you aching to see more of Moreno, if you have satellite or cable tv, you can always catch her on re-runs of Law and Order: Criminal Intent as the fabulously crazy dying mother of Detective Goren. And she plays Fran Drescher’s mom on TV Land’s new sitcom Happily Divorced which aired in June 2011. With a one-woman show and a new TV role, 79 never looked so good.
Written by Tony Taccone
Developed by Rita Moreno and Tony Taccone
Staged and directed by David Galligan
Choreography by Lee Martino
Set design by Anna Louizos
Costumes by Annie Smart
Video and lights by Alexander V. Nichols
Sound by Phil Allen
Featuring a four-piece band with Cesar Cancino (music director), Sascha Jacobsen (bass), Alex Murzyn (reeds), and David Rokeach (percussion)
Details: Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup runs through October 30, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances Tuesday-Sunday with several matinee performances. Pre-show docent talks: Tuesdays 9/27, 10/4, 10/11, 10/18 & 10/25 and Thursdays 9/22, 9/29, 10/6 & 10/20 @ 7:00 PM. Post-play discussions: Thursday 9/22, Tuesday 9/27, and Friday 10/7 @ 8:00 PM
Tickets: $73 to $34. Box office: (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.
Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.