Arts & Events

Theater Review: Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup at Berkeley Rep

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday September 21, 2011 - 03:12:00 PM


Rita Moreno, nee Rosita Dolores Alverio--one of the few performers, and the first Latino, to win Oscar, Tony, Grammy and (2) Emmy(s)--has lived in the Bay Area the past two decades, distinguishing herself locally with her very public presence. At Berkeley Rep just a few years ago, Moreno did a splendid turn as Amanda in Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie. 

She's back onstage at the Rep, telling of her life and career and performing scenes from both, in Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, a show concocted by her and Tony Taccone, artistic director of the Rep, staged and directed by David Galligan. 

Moreno's story is particularly interesting as the roles she played onstage and screen relate to both her Puerto Rican origins and her efforts not to be merely typecast as an exotic of whatever kind. 

(On the other hand, one of the production numbers--choreographed by Lee Martino, featuring the excellent dancing of Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo with Moreno--from Terence McNally's The Ritz shows how Moreno could turn that problem on its head, her character hilariously concocted of Latina malapropisms imitated from a relative.) 

There's the not-always triumphal parade of the movies she appeared in, notably The King & I, Singin' In The Rain, Summer and Smoke, Night of the Following Day, Carnal Knowledge and of course West Side Story. There're film clips projected, and her years on TV with The Electric Company are represented on projected video as well as in a funny song-and-dance routine in a big wig and dress, playing the part of a naughty little girl from that groundbreaking kids' show. 

Moreno's a trouper in life, as well as the performing arts, offering some tart anecdotes, including her "emotional sinkhole" of an affair with Marlon Brando (followed by a suicide attempt), as well as the tale of the first date with her future husband of 45 years, Leonard Gordon. Not finding her in the lobby of the theater she told him to meet her at, Gordon noticed her name on the marquee as he was leaving, rushed backstage to her dressing room and gasped out: "You're THE Rita Moreno?" (Gordon, long her manager, died only last year.) 

Her presence onstage throughout makes the two-hour show, which isn't the star vehicle some have claimed. There are some fine vignettes, mostly production numbers that reprise moments from her career, West Side Story naturally saved for last. But too much of the burden falls on her shoulders. Instead of bringing her personality and talents into the spotlight, accenting both her excellence and her humanity, Without Makeup reduces Moreno's natural dynamism onstage by lessening the concentration of the material--too much exposition, worthy of an interview or talk show, but not a stage production highlighting her life and talents.  

In the background, there could be the shadow of another, very successful star vehicle, Elaine Stritch at Liberty ... in which a raconteur's style flowed seamlessly in and out of songs and dance numbers, staged in a cabaret setting. Moreno's a good talker, by turns affecting, funny and pithy, but her own style of relating to an audience and performing doesn't really catch in this kind of staging on the Roda Stage of the Rep, despite her sincere yet very professional gestures to both informality and spectacle. 

Certainly this production will be reworked, especially if it's taken elsewhere. At the moment, however glorious it is to witness Moreno's ageless charisma as a performer and her character as a person, Without Makeup is more like an extended tribute, the kind most stars walk through, bantering cutely for the audience. But Moreno's really working, putting herself out. The theatrical fashioning, the staging of this intrinsically interesting material--her life and career--should be more suited to her exceptional strengths, her extraordinary talent. 

Tuesdays through Sundays, through November 6, Roda Stage, Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison (near Shattuck). 647-2949;