Theatre Review: “Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup” @ Berkeley Rep, 09/07/11

What can I say? It’s Rita Moreno. Her new show, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup doesn’t disappoint. Moreno beautifully sings and dances her way into your heart with her unforgettable stories, songs and dances.

Now 79 (turning 80 in December), Moreno continues to shine in her new one-woman show at Berkeley Rep about her life’s journeys in and out of Hollywood, Broadway, TV and dating Marlon Brando. Moreno is one of the few people who has been awarded a Tony, Emmy, Oscar and Grammy and was the second Puerto Rican to win an Academy Award. Her work ethic throughout all of her career is outstanding, but especially now. In an interview with Tony Taccone, the show’s writer, he said, “I think Rita shocked everybody by being the hardest worker in the room. I mean, she was there before everybody else and she left after everybody else, and she wouldn’t stop… there’s a reason why this person is who she is”. And there’s no doubt about that.

She starts her story on a boat that takes her from Puerto Rico to New York City at age 5 with only her mother (her only brother left behind). In New York City, she started Spanish dancing lessons with Rita Hayworth’s uncle, Paco Cansino. Moreno instantly realized that performing was her destiny. From then on, she was a force to be reckoned with, working her way through Hollywood, continually being typecast in several different “ethnic stereotypes” but eventually breaking through a huge barrier and winning an Academy Award for Anita in West Side Story in 1961 (age 30).

Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

As she tells her stories, Moreno comfortably recants the “characters” in her life with ease and numerous hilarious accents. The music was interspersed perfectly into the dialogue. And then she surprised us all by performing an incredible tap number to “Broadway Rhythm” from Singing in the Rain, with the help of her two male dancers, Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo. Later in the evening, they perform “The Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story. This is an unforgettable moment for anyone who has seen and fell in love with West Side Story. (I get goose bumps just thinking about it!)

Moreno was born for the stage and with Tony Taccone’s beautiful written script, Moreno’s life is celebrated in a way she should be extremely proud of. Beautiful videos and media, by Alexander V. Nichols, accompany and punctuate her stories perfectly, and the music, directed by Cesar Cancino, was lovely.

Throughout the fascinating 2-act narrative, Moreno’s grace and ease on stage is incredible. It was an honor to witness her performance and it’s one that will not be forgotten.

This show celebrates Moreno’s life but instead of being a biography, you get to watch it in 3D — a true honor.

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