Don’t bring your date around Rita Moreno. Just glancing at those glamour shots that line the lobby of Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, it’s easy to see why she’s as warm and ebullient at 79 as she was at 16, upon signing her first contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Not to mention the famed Puerto Rican actress can still tap dance, trot around in three-and-a-half-inch stilettos, crotch-grab (or fake crotch-grab) two dashing backup dancers (Ray Garcia and the luscious Salvatore Vassallo), bat her eyes convincingly at an audience, and move with the elasticity of someone forty years younger. She does all those things with flair in a new one-woman show, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, written by the Rep’s artistic director Tony Taccone and billed as an autobiography without adornments.
Thus we get to see the “real” Rita Moreno — née Rosa Dolores Alverío — who immigrated from Puerto Rico on a vessel called the SS Carabobo (rough translation: “the SS Stupid”) lived in a poorly ventilated tenement apartment in New York, shopped at “voodoo” stores for her mother’s love potions, endured a desperate, passionate love affair with Marlon Brando, and dealt with the shame of being perennially typecast as a foreigner or slave girl.
But the Rita who emerges isn’t self-pitying or riddled with insecurities. Rather, she’s relentlessly charming, ruthlessly enterprising, and congenitally hardwired for showbiz. Moreover, she’s the product of a perfectly hewn American Dream allegory that actually happened. Moreno began life as Rosita Dolores, the Puerto Rican girl who came up hard but embraced her circumstances and eventually overcame them — by age sixteen, she was clutching a mascara wand in one hand and a contract in the other. Like her mother Rosa Maria, who seduced half a dozen men by pouring ground-up flies in their coffee, Rita Moreno simply willed things to happen. She’s a consummate performer on or offstage.
Life Without Makeup generated from conversations between Moreno and Taccone, who at first didn’t envision himself as the playwright for this show, until he couldn’t find a better person to do it. Taccone has helmed more than 35 productions at Berkeley Rep, and only recently decided to try his hand at playwriting. But he took to it like a pro, worked assiduously, and actually penned two shows coming out this season — the other, developed from a similar process of interviewing, note-taking, and synthesizing, is based on the life of Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone. Life, which was directed by David Galligan, has a clean structure and tidy, feel-gooder theme that’s just strong enough to elide bumps and gaps in the storyline.
There aren’t that many of them. Moreno could have delved a little deeper into the Brando affair, or offer a few juicy details about Elvis, who she says she also dated. Some of the spurts and droughts in her career are also left unexplained. It’s a little unclear how she was yanked off the Bar Mitzvah circuit, handed a studio contract, and then thrown away when MGM decided not to renew her option — all within a seven-year period. Perhaps it’s just the fickle nature of Hollywood to buffet a young ingénue from the chorusline of Singin’ in the Rain to the netherworld of pulp and B-movies. In Moreno’s case, a lot of those jolts were the result of institutionalized racism. She described herself, at several points in the play, as a “utility ethnic” who had to compete with other starlets of color for the best mistress or slave girl roles.
But if Moreno saw herself as a utility, she could also be an incredible bombshell. Clips sprinkled throughout the show depict a leggy young woman with finely chiseled features and smoky doe eyes. Never quite a sex symbol, she was someone who could easily grace the cover of Life magazine or snag a role written for Grace Kelly. She could make anyone fall in love with her.
At age 79, Moreno retains a lot of those qualities. She emerged at the beginning of the opening night performance in a loose-fitting red outfit, sequined belt, and white-rimmed trapezoidal glasses, her hair cropped in a smart pixie cut. She had several costume changes throughout the night, one of which involved a dowdy wig and ruffly frock, to play the character of wannabe cabaret star Googie Gomez. As a bonus, she also does two numbers from West Side Story (including reprises of “Mambo” and “America,” complete with a live band) and one from her children’s show, The Electric Company.
It didn’t take much for Moreno to endear herself to the full house at Berkeley Rep. A screen actress-turned children’s TV star who won all four of the most prestigious showbiz awards, she already has an ardent cult of fandom. And even if you come in not knowing anything about the diva’s biography, the mere fact that she can lead dance routines at age 79, quip about past failures, and make fun of Arthur Laurents’ idealized gang dialogue because she actually grew up in the ghetto, is enough to warrant strong adoration. Two decades since refusing a role as an “ethnic” whorehouse madam, Moreno has proven herself a queen, once again.