Rita Moreno’s life laid bare in ‘Life without Makeup’

Rita Moreno with Salvatore Vassallo (left) and Ray Garcia in Life Without Makeup. Photo by Kevin Berne via Berkeley Rep

When audiences entered Berkeley Rep’s Roda theater on Wednesday night, they passed by a table with a shiny display: an Oscar, a Grammy, two Emmy awards, a National Medal of the Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The awards, of course, belonged to Rita Moreno, the legendary 79-year old actress who is one of the few people to have won an EGOT, a popular term that describes the winning of all four major American entertainment awards. Moreno accomplished this remarkable feat by the age of 46.

But the exhibition of awards (the Tony was missing) was the only mention of plaudits during the opening night performance of Moreno’s biographical show, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup. The new production, created by Berkeley Rep’s artistic director Tony Taccone, is the story of Moreno’s life, but it was written to emphasize Moreno’s earthiness, humor, and talent, rather than her star power. Thus, no mention of the EGOT.

Instead, for two and a half hours the audience got to see Moreno dance (wonderfully well for a woman close to 80), sing, talk, make fun of herself, and generally wow the crowd –and actually come across as a humble, albeit remarkable, woman. Still a star, but not the ego-grabbing kind.

The play, which Taccone wrote after hours of interviews with Moreno, opens with her reminiscing about the time she and her mother took a boat from Puerto Rico to America. Moreno was five and wasn’t quite sure why she was leaving and where she was going, and those feelings of uncertainty were compounded when the ship ran into a storm that sent it heaving through the seas, scaring her thoroughly. On the sixth day of the 1936 voyage, Moreno woke up to clear skies and the looming Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. She thought to herself how interesting it was to come to a country run by a woman.

The opening scene of Life Without Makeup starts regularly enough, with Moreno, dressed in a bright red pantsuit and red high heels, situated in front of a large screen where a picture of the ship is projected. But then she starts describing the storm and Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, two stunningly handsome and athletic dancers (and would Moreno want any other type?) come onto the stage. The monologue suddenly becomes a Broadway dance spectacle complete with leaps and and moving sections of a ship’s deck.

It’s fun and is the first hint that the show doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a smart move because Moreno has accomplished so much in her life that if she didn’t poke fun at herself every once in a while she would come off as a prima donna. That she doesn’t is a testament to her self-regard.

Rita Moreno's Oscar, her two Emmys, and other awards

The first act is tinged with bitterness as it examines the racial prejudices that ruled show business. Moreno won her first Broadway role in 1944 at the age of 13 and quickly moved to Hollywood where she found herself typecast as a generic ethnic seen more for her long legs and lovely eyes than for her acting and dancing talent.

Moreno was signed to two Hollywood studios, and had her contracts terminated early both times. She went long stretches when the phone didn’t ring, and when it did, was offered parts like the beautiful Indian mute. Rich moguls and studio heads pawed her.

Of course, there were moments of triumph in her early years, such as parts in Singing in the Rain, The King and I, and her face on the cover of Life magazine. When she was 23, she walked into a film makeup room and spotted – and fell in love with — the young Marlon Brando. For five years they had a passionate and turbulent relationship, which Moreno refers to the “romantic sinkhole that was Marlon Brando.” To get back at him, she briefly dated Elvis Presley. When the affair sizzled, she swallowed a handful of sleeping pills.

The first act ends before Moreno’s big triumph – her Oscar-winning role as Anita in the film production of West Side Story. When the curtain on Act Two went up, I expected to learn about Moreno’s achievement and feel my heart swell with emotion as she finally succeeds in a world dominated by narrow minds. But for some reason, Taccone decided to have the second part of the show start with a funny bit of Moreno dressed up as Miss Googie Gomez, a character she played in The Ritz on Broadway (Moreno won a Tony in 1975 for her performance) and then segue into a description of her five-year run on PBS’  The Electric Company.

While these parts are entertaining, they interrupt the narrative arc of the play and prevent the audience from really feeling Moreno’s artistic triumphs. Although Moreno does go on to talk about West Side Story and do a fabulous rendition of the song America (and a great dance with Garcia and Vassallo) it kind of falls flat. Nor does Moreno delve deeply into her personal feelings, like the loss in 2010 of Lenny Gordon, her husband of more than 25 years. Those missed opportunities leach a lot of emotional impact from the play.

But these are small quibbles. The play is new and will probably evolve with time. (And I bet it goes to Broadway). The evening with Rita Moreno was fabulously fun and entertaining. Even though she comes across as the kind of person you would love to sit next to at a dinner party, she is a diva. And I mean that in the best possible way. Her talent is immense. Her magnetism oozes out with every word and dance step. And she sure can move.

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, plays at Berkeley Repertory Theater from Sept. 2 to Oct. 30. The 2.5 hour play was written by Tony Taccone and developed by Moreno and Taccone. It was staged and directed by David Galligan and choreographed by Lee Martino. It stars Moreno and features Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo. The four-piece band includes Cesar Cancino (music director, Sascha Jacobsen (bass), Alex Murzyn (reeds) and David Rokeach (percussion).

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