Saturday, September 3, 2011


As a theatre-lover, I've been privileged to see a few earth-shattering, stunning performances in my time. In 1962, at an out-of-town tryout of a Broadway-bound musical, I Can Get It For You Wholesale, I saw a nineteen year old Barbra Streisand in a minor role stop the show with her featured song, Miss Marmelstein. It is hard to believe the performance I saw last night at the Berkeley Rep was done by a woman exactly sixty years older, Rita Moreno.

It almost does her a disservice to mention she will be eighty on December 11th, because by any standards she deserved her standing ovation in the first public performance of her new one woman show,
Rita Moreno--Life Without Makeup.
She held the stage with zest and majesty for two-and-a-half hours, with the assistance of some brilliant staging and two male dancers probably one third her age. Rita calls the energetic dancing she herself does, SKD, "sorta kinda dancing." This is certainly true of many aging dancers who sorta go through the motions, but what this Puerto Rican beauty did was way beyond that, despite recent knee replacement surgery.

As I launch my own solo performance career, I am inspired and intimidated by this Oscar, Tony, Emmy, and Grammy winner's virtuoso display. Of course, it doesn't help build my confidence that I don't sing or dance, act, or have as still gorgeous legs as Rita Moreno--nor as colorful a life as this woman with 74 years in show business and still counting. She recently took on the role of Fran Drescher's mother in the new sitcom, Happily Divorced--and there's no doubt in my mind, or in the mind of any other audience member last night, that her first solo performance will eventually sellout on Broadway. Brilliantly piecing together segments from the tapestry of her life is her co-creator, the Berkeley Rep artistic director, Tony Taccone, whom she credits with talking her into the project two years ago, after she originally turned him down five years ago. He convinced her that, at 77 then, she had better get on with it.

The mark of success in any performance art is to leave the audience wanting more. Afterwards, I was Googling like crazy, trying to fill in some of the rest of the story. But I guess I'll have to wait for Rita Moreno's promised memoir. Though I admire her classiness and grace in refusing to dish very much dirt, I really would like to know exactly how she went about trying and succeeding in making Marlon Brando jealous by dating Elvis Presley. I never knew she was in a tumultuous five year relationship with Brando while still in her twenties. She eventually had a forty-five year marriage with Leonard Gordon, who died last year at the age of ninety.

The most astonishing thing about this one woman show isn't that a woman who will be eighty in three months is starring in it, but rather than for most of her commanding, adorable presence on stage, you can't even remember how long she's been around. There's a newness, a childlike sense of wonder, the energy and charisma of someone who is immensely talented and just starting out in a fantastic career that will lead to inevitable stardom. I'd be willing to bet that in the next few years, many performers half her age, seeing this show will be saying to themselves, "I wish I could walk out on a stage and do that."

And Rita Moreno also gets off some great one liners. At one point, she talks about Betty Wand, who dubbed one of her songs in West Side Story because Rita couldn't hit the lowest notes, but then went on to claim she did all of the other songs, too. With an arch of her eyebrow and ironic shrug of her still beautiful shoulders, Rita Moreno says, "May she rest in peace.." hold for a sweet pause, then, "Of course she's still alive."
Since she has already won the four top entertainment awards, they really have to invent a new one for this.

I'm not even sure I'm going to try to explain, or even could if I wanted to, my rather contradictory reaction to this amazing performance: It has made me feel older than I really am, and at the same time, a lot younger.

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