Berkeley Rep production reinvigorates tale of Old Hollywood

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Hollywood legend Rita Moreno relives the highlights of her celebrated career onstage in an autobiographical performace at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

There are only ten artists who have ever achieved the honor of winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony (the coveted EGOT — as Tracy Jordan from “30 Rock” would call these award-winning champions). But, only one of them can boast of dating both Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando. And no, that one wouldn’t be fellow EGOT John Gielgud. The awards and accolades that Ms. Rita Moreno has won, from an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as the Anita in “West Side Story” to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, are too numerous to count  here. To sum it up, the woman is a dynamo and with her latest incarnation, “Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, she channels her vivacious, triple threat talents into a life-defining performance.

We start in 1936, on a ship dubbed the S.S. Carabobo (en espanol, that’s the S.S. Stupidface). It’s an inauspicious start for the young Moreno (then, Rosa Alverio) as she embarked, along with her mother, from their native Puerto Rico to the bustling barrios of New York City. This is how Moreno got started, finding solace on top the rusty fire escapes listening to the soothing tunes of the Pied Pipers under the stars. With equal parts sass, sadness and song, Moreno recounts her story, from those nights sitting on stoops to her days walking the star-studded sets of Old Hollywood.

From the beginning, the tale enthralls and excites. There’s the juicy gossip of Hollywood’s heyday, there’s the spice of Spanish dancing and there’s the smokin’ “tight pants” of a young Marlon Brando. With minimal set dressing and nothing but two backups and a band, Moreno’s monologue invites us into the seemingly glamorous world of Old Hollywood — complete with the likes of Clark Gable and Gene Kelly. It’s a magical world, only made more so with the added benefit of clips from her early films, lively dance numbers from “Singin’ in the Rain” and her most notable work, “West Side Story.” However, the glamor is only fleeting and the glitz, a flimsy veneer.

As the title would indicate, “Life Without Makeup” is not just about the Old Hollywood charm. The nostalgia trip, while pleasant, becomes secondary to the primacy of Moreno’s troubled personal experiences. Despite her exuberance while dancing or singing, which, at age 79, she can still pull off flawlessly, there is a powerful pathos that underpins her performance. As a Latina actress, we hear how she was typecast as the “utility ethnic,” but sexually objectified in both the cinemas and by the studio heads. It becomes clear that Moreno’s monologue is more than a resounding revue, but an emotionally-charged indictment of the entertainment industry she’s both succeeded in and struggled with.

In fact, Moreno still seems to struggle, slightly. Last Wednesday’s opening night had its fair share of line flubs and mishaps. Before taking to the tap dance of “Broadway Rhythm,” Moreno had some trouble putting on her shoes. But, these are negligible when compared to the success she and writer Tony Taccone have achieved with “Life Without Makeup.” At its core, it is a show that strips away the romantic notions of show business while still maintaining  a light-hearted and hilarious feel. With a self-assurance, raw vulnerability and commanding versatility, “Life Without Makeup” is Moreno’s own voice, uncensored and worthy of a spotlight all to its self.