It would be easy for Rita Moreno to rest on her considerable laurels and conquests - after all she's a winner of the EGOT - Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony - and she once dated Elvis to make longtime lover Marlon Brando jealous. But she hasn't rested - in fact she is unstoppable. At age 79 the svelte Puerto Rican triple threat from Hollywood's bygone golden age continues to bring the house down. Currently starring in a new TV show (Happily Divorced) she is also simultaneously starring in her spectacular one-woman show Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, which had its world premiere this week at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.

Moreno's resilience, hard work, losses and loves have been beautifully captured by Berkeley Rep's artistic director and debuting playwright Tony Taccone, who was brought on stage by Moreno during her standing ovation at the end of the show for a bow of his own. The two had worked together on the show Master Class and it was Taccone who nudged the reluctant star into doing a show about her life, much to the delight of the opening night audience.

What initially emerges is an immigrant's tale scrubbed free of the glitz and glamour that would be layered on like so much pancake makeup later on. From the very beginning it wasn't an easy ride and it was far from glamorous. Aided by extraordinary dancers Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, Moreno recounts the stormy ship voyage that she and her mother embarked upon from their native, rainforest-filled Puerto Rico to their melting pot, ghetto digs in New York's Spanish Harlem.

She was five at the time of the journey and the tiny Rosita Dolores Alverio (her given name) was mesmerized by Lady Liberty and in awe of a country run by the woman holding a huge flaming ice cream cone. Her mother bent down to tell her that the woman was inviting everyone from around the world to come to America - the poor, the tired and the hungry. Quips Moreno,"We were definitely over-qualified."

Speaking directly to the audience Moreno tells her story with candor and grace, her vibrant authenticity and charm shining through at every turn. One thing is for sure, Moreno knows how to entertain and for two hours we are treated to an actress whose life and work span from Garland and Gable to Hanks and Hallie Barry, not to mention TV's Fran Dresher!

Visuals of her life help tell the story. But the three panels that her family photos and movie clips were projected on sometimes served to distort rather than display, and proved somewhat distracting. The projections worked better when the panels were side by side, rather than offset, at least from a sideview.

Taccone and Moreno infuse the show with self-deprecating humor evident when she points out that Puerto Ricans are very good at panicking. "We are a profoundly passionate people..."she says, whose motto seems to be "when in doubt, flip out."

But it is the audience that 'flips out' when she, Garcia and Vassallo perform a wonderful rendition of "Broadway Rhythm" as well as a hilarious reprise of her tony-winning turn as Goggie Gomez singing "Everything's Coming Up Roses," with her signature Puerto Rican accent slathered on thick. Seriously, Rita's still got it! Her send-up of Natasha Lytess, (Marilyn Monroe's acting teacher) is hilarious, and then she favors us with the Marilyn Monroe-esque voicing that she used to great effect in the movie The Lieutenant Wore Skirts. Wonderful!

And then there are the more serious moments. There were the phone calls that never came and then the ones that did, letting her know that her option wasn't being renewed - or that she was being sought out for yet another hooker part or "ethnic utility player" role. That was part of the typecasting and racism that she dealt with. But she also had to contend with sexism.

Early on in her career, as one of the starlets in the studio stable, she attended an industry party where she was roughed up and pawed by several movie moguls before stumbling outside and being rescued by the Mexican gardeners. Her face contorted, Moreno's voice is a whisper as she says, "They completely see me, and they put a jacket around my shoulders and take me home." It is a profound moment of truth as she stands there in the spotlight all alone.

And yet, there was definite glamour...and magic. After being signed by MGM's Louis B. Mayer, the first person she meets on the studio lot is Clark Gable. "Then in walks Lana Turner, followed by Ava Gardner and yes, Elizabeth Taylor," she says with a smile and a sigh. In time she would work with Gene Kelly (Singing in the Rain), "himself, Jack Nicholson" (Carnal Knowledge), and a whole host of other amazing leading men and women.

It's while she was at MGM that she happened to poke her head into the make-up room "and there he was," she says, speaking of Marlon Brando. "Have you ever been so in love with someone that you can't breathe," she asks. Then concludes, "Marlon felt that way about himself. I agreed with him." The strains of Mercer and Mannilow's, "When October Goes" fill the theater as she sings, I should be over him now I know/It doesn't matter much how old I grow/I hate to see October go. Poignant and honest, her face says it all. She and Brando would have a tempestuous affair that would only end in 1961 with Moreno's overdose of sleeping pills in his apartment.

Coming out on the other side, the suicide attempt was a turning point in her life, for 1961 would also be the year that she played Anita in West Side Story and win the Oscar for her efforts.

Garcia and Vassallo join her on stage as the crepe paper falls and the familiar melodies of West Side Story are played by music director César Cansino's band. It is a moment filled with that feeling of a once in a lifetime experience - the opportunity to see Rita Moreno playing the part of Anita and listening to her share insider stories of what it was like to be on that set and work with choreographer Jerome Robbins and others. Definitely worth the price of admission. From here her personal life gets better. She meets and marries her beloved Lenny and they eventually have a daughter named Fernanda. "From the day she was born I wanted to make her proud," says the legendary actress. It's clear that in this, Rita Moreno has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup
Book by Tony Taccone
Developed by Rita Moreno and Tony Taccone
Directed by David Galligan
Through Oct. 30
Two hours, 20 minutes
$14.50-$73, subject to change
Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com



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