Lovely as ever, Rita Moreno tells her tale

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Rita Moreno dances through her past with Salvatore Vassallo (left) and Ray Garcia in the world premiere of Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup at Berkeley Rep. Photos courtesy of

She’s charming and gorgeous. Vivacious and soulful. In short, Rita Moreno is the perfect candidate for an autobiographical show.

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup is not yet the perfect show for this legendary performer, but it provides a snazzy opening to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre season.

Written by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone and directed by David Galligan,, the show is at its best when Moreno is taking us through the ups and mostly downs of her storied career. Act 1 is a chronological narrative, beginning with a 5-year-old Rosa Dolores Alverío boarding a ship in 1936 to take them from Puerto Rico to a new life in New York.

From her first meeting with Louis B. Mayer at age 16, Moreno was catapulted from life in the barrio to the world of hardscrabble glamour as a Hollywood starlet who, it’s interesting to note, could have chose the screen name Mitzi Margarita.

What’s so interesting about Moreno’s story is that throughout her career, she was fighting stereotype – of Puerto Ricans, of women, of Puerto Rican women. She played Indian, Siamese, Native American, Polynesian and more and says her small roles in mostly forgettable movies defined her professionally as the “resident utility ethnic.”

When she finally played a Puerto Rican so famously in West Side Story, director Jerome Robbins made her – and ever actor playing Puerto Rican – wear a thick coat of makeup that made them all exactly the same color. The white actors could have varying skin tones, but the ethic actors were not allowed that measure of reality.

Those are the kind of details that really shine in Taccone’s smart script, which mostly eschews the razzle-dazzle of the typical show-biz biography.

The first half is punctuated by photos and film clips (Alexander V. Nichols’ projections and lights look terrific on Anna Louizos’ elegant set) and bits of musical numbers. A young Moreno sits on the fire escape of her building singing along with the Pied Pipers’ “Dream” on the radio. When she falls head over heels for Marlon Brando, she sings a few verses of “The Way He Makes Me Feel,” then when things go badly, she veers into “When October Goes.”

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Music Director César Cancino and his quartet handle the music cues nicely, though it would be nice to have Moreno sing an entire song other than “The Hate Song,” an unnecessary bit from her stint on The Electric Company, which is represented far more successfully by a film clip of Moreno singing Tom Lehrer’s hilarious “The Menu Song” with Morgan Freeman.

Aided by dancers Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, Moreno re-creates her introduction to Spanish dancing as a teenager. She also resurrects Googie Gomez from The Ritz, a role that won her a 1975 Tony Award. While it’s wonderful to see Googie, the number (she massacres “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) is overplayed. Moreno has done this bit to better effect in her cabaret act.

Moreno, who turns 80 in December, is a captivating storyteller, and hearing what life was like for a starlet in 1950s Hollywood is chilling. She describes being abandoned at a party (by the shoe magnate who would later marry Debbie Reynolds no less) and barely escaping some serious sexual assault.

In Act 2, the chronology turns into a more free-form recounting as Moreno struggles to find work. When she gets to West Side Story, she re-creates two numbers, “Dance at the Gym” and “America,” and while it’s always great to see Moreno strut her stuff, to faithfully perform these numbers requires more than what she’s got (her knees, she admits, aren’t what they used to be). She’s a trouper, no question, but this effort seems too much when a film clip might serve the storytelling more effectively.

While it would be impossible not to feature music in the story of Moreno’s life, the power in this show is her storytelling. Though leaning heavily on Teleprompters for the opening-night performance, Moreno fascinates as she describes almost losing her mind making Carnal Knowledge and then worrying about how playing a prostitute in that movie might affect her chances of getting the gig on The Electric Company.

Though the show is 2 ½ hours, there’s a lot she doesn’t mention. For instance, when she’s struggling in Hollywood and begins to consider secretarial school, suddenly her career gets a boost when she appears on the cover of Life magazine. Very exciting but how in the world did a struggling actress end up on the cover of Life?

It’s interesting that Moreno didn’t make a movie for seven years after West Side Story, but what makes it even more interesting is that she won an Academy Award for that movie, a fact she doesn’t mention (though that Oscar, along with many other awards are on display in the lobby and available for carefully guarded photo ops).

Though she does briefly, poignantly delve into the loss of her husband, Dr. Leonard Gordon, last year, she doesn’t discuss her later career much (beyond telling off a hot-shot British director by affirming that she does NOT do Mexican madams). That’s a shame because there are doubtless stories to be told about Sister Pete, the fascinating nun she played on HBO’s prison drama, Oz.

There’s a thread through the show of identity, and how Moreno has lost it, found it and fully owned it. At one crisis point, she says, “I had made myself up beyond all recognition.” These days it seems Moreno, who has won every award on the planet and conquered seemingly every aspect of show business, knows who she is and could afford to rest on her laurels. But she powers ahead, and her story keeps spinning on. Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup will undoubtedly deepen as the run continues and the Moreno spark connects more fully with the compelling Moreno story.

[bonus video]
Here’s Moreno singing Tom Lehrer’s “The Menu Song” on The Electric Company with Morgan Freeman. Genius.

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup continues an extended run through Nov. 12 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$73 (subject to change). Call (510) 647-2949 or visit

West Side represent!

West Side StoryThe Broadway company of West Side Story dances it out at the gymnasium. Below: The Shark ladies argue about the merits of living in “America.” Photos by Joan Marcus

To quote one of the Jets, “Dig this and dig it the most.” The most compelling drama at Wednesday’s opening of West Side Story wasn’t happening on the stage of the Orpheum Theatre. It was a few blocks away at the giant theater known as AT&T Park, where the Giants were routing the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the World Series.

The Orpheum stage crew thoughtfully announced the score before the show started and then shared the news of the Giants’ win before the show resumed after intermission.

The Giants delivered an impressive score Wednesday night, and so did West Side Story. Under the baton of John O’Neill the 19-piece orchestra conveyed the irresistible pulse of Leonard Bernstein’s music and gave the entire evening the sort of dramatic heft and unbelievable beauty that only occasionally appeared on stage.

I wonder if any production of West Side Story will ever live up to the grandeur of the score. In theory, the idea of translating Romeo and Juliet to the mean streets of 1950s New York is a good one, but the story is so rooted in its time – in ways the score is not – that it can’t help but seem a bit of a relic.

This touring production, part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season, is based on the 2009 Broadway revival directed by Arthur Laurents, who also wrote the book. It was Laurents’ intention to deliver something rough and gritty, which he does by trying to actualize the violence. The blood and danger on stage is amped up, but the Jets – the kids of white immigrants – and the Sharks – the kids of Puerto Rican immigrants – are still exquisite dancers, so the real threat is missing a turn or falling out of step with your fellow hoodlum.

That said, the moments that propel West Side Story far beyond most musicals involve the seamless combination of Jerome Robbins’ choreography and the Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score.

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In the touring production helmed by David Saint (based on Laurents’ work) and choreographed by Joey McKneely (based on Robbins’ original), those moments are thrilling: the “Dance at the Gym” when the Sharks and the Jets pretend to play nice; Anita (the wonderful Michelle Aravena) and her friends tearing up “America”; and the “Tonight” quintet, which is practically operatic in its scope.

The more intimate moments don’t work as well in this production, partly because the Tony and Maria lack chemistry. Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt are appealing, and Ewoldt has a shimmering light soprano, but their love story is suggested more than felt. That’s partly the result of the book – they fall in love instantly (like Romeo and Juliet) and are on their knees pledging their troth within 24 hours.

Still, you must admit, having the song “Somewhere” accompanied by a dream ballet as foreplay is a fairly potent aphrodisiac.

One of the nice surprises of this revival isn’t the intermittent Spanish that pops up in the lyrics and dialogue but the joyful menace that turns the out-of-sync novelty number “Gee, Officer Krupke” into something with a little more dramatic weight. Similarly, “I Feel Pretty,” which can be pretty cornball, is actually funny and a little sassy.

Laurents’ revised ending – the same people die in the same old ways – makes it less explicit that the war between the Sharks and the Jets has ended. In other productions (and the movie), the gangsters join together to carry a fallen comrade off the stage. Maria’s grief and outrage over all the senseless violence has bridged their differences. Not so here – there’s an attempt to cross enemy lines, but it’s tentative at best.

That’s a realistic ending, especially as it follows the near-horrific scene in which the Jets nearly rape Anita. If these truly are dangerous thugs, as Laurents wants us to believe, a crying Maria or a stack of dead bodies won’t quell their hate and gangster tendencies.

Realistic or not, it still doesn’t make for a great musical theater ending. Shakespeare knew there needed to be a glimmer of hope, and you certainly feel that in Bernstein’s music, as we “Somewhere,” mustering its hymn-like power, rumbles in the underscore. But Laurents’ stage picture withholds that from us.

Dig that and dig it the most. Vamos Gigantes.


West Side Story continues through Nov. 28 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 888 746 1799 or visit for information.

Just play it cool, boy! The enduring sound of West Side Story

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The Jets take flight to Leonard Bernstein’s score in the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story. Photo by Joan Marcus. Below, Leonard Bernstein, further below from Life magazine in 1956: Collaborators Bernstein (left), Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim discuss the imminent opening of West Side Story. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt © Time, Inc.

What makes West Side Story so incredibly intoxicating, even 53 years after its premiere? There’s no denying the power of Jerome Robbins’ athletic and gorgeous choreography or the simplicity and (occasional) corniness of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (his first for a Broadway show). And Arthur Laurents’ book, which puts a 1950s spin on Romeo and Juliet, is about as solid as Broadway books come.

But it’s the music, Leonard Bernstein’s astonishing music, that elevates West Side Story to legendary status. Combining classical with jazz with show tune, Bernstein concocted a highly original sound that has yet to be bested on the Broadway stage. This is a score for the ages, one as equally at home in the symphony hall as in the high school auditorium. How many scores can fit as comfortably in both spaces? Aside from Bernstein’s own Candide (which he was working on in tandem with West Side Story), not many.

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We’ll have the chance to revisit the score this week as the most recent Broadway revival comes to town as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series.

Patrick Vaccariello is the music supervisor and musical director for the revival, which opened on Broadway in March of 2009 and is still running at the Palace Theatre. He helped get the tour in shape and comes to West Side Story – his first Bernstein show – having worked on musicals ranging from Jesus Christ Superstar to The Boy from Oz as well as the most recent revivals of A Chorus Line and Gypsy.

Having been immersed in the world of Bernstein’s music for nearly two years now, Vaccariello says one secret of the Bernstein score’s power is the way it supports the emotions of the characters.

“It’s my job as the musical director to convey the emotion to the musicians so they’re fully supporting the actors,” Vaccariello explains on the phone from his New York home. “The characters on stage are passionate people. From the fanfare and the prologue to the finale, we all take an incredible musical journey each night, and that journey is fully supportive of the action on stage. We use the original orchestrations – by Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal – which are thrilling.”

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When the revival opened, the orchestra included 29 pieces. That has since been reduced by four. And for the tour, the pit will hold 19 musicians plus the conductor, which is still pretty large for a traveling show. “A lot of Broadway shows have synthesizers,” Vaccariello says. “We have violins and cellos, so you get the emotion. When violinists play a melody, it’s thrilling.”

The musical director, being the arbiter of the musical emotion, is able to react directly to what the actors are putting out there on stage.

“We can shape the show differently every night,” Vaccariello explains. “For instance, in the balcony scene, when Tony and Maria are singing ‘Tonight,’ they play it slightly different every night with different dynamics. I can try and match that by bringing out the woodwinds or shaping a phrase slightly differently. Everything in this show is heightened, and the beauty of the Bernstein score is that it energizes the performances.”

In addition to grand symphonic pieces like “Somewhere” or “Maria,” the orchestra also gets to cook with numbers like “The Dance at the Gym” and “America.”

Vaccariello calls the “Tonight” quintet one of the “most amazing pieces of musical theatre ever” because, as he says, “it’s purely about the acting and the singing and gorgeous lyrics.”

And in this production, directed by Laurents (who was 91 when the revival opened), the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks, sings in Spanish. “That adds a whole other layer of emotion,” Vaccariello says.

Broadway audiences unfamiliar with the show were somewhat baffled by the Spanish lyrics (translated by In the Heights’ Lin-Manuel Miranda), and as the production went on, some of the Spanish was turned back into English.

“We didn’t want audiences new to the show confused by the story,” Vaccariello says, “so we put a few bits of English back in. But there’s still plenty of Spanish.”

Bernsteins’ score for West Side Story raised the bar for Broadway musicals. The show integrated book scenes with songs and dancing in a seamless way that was groundbreaking and still sets the musical theater standard.

“Many new composers would love to write like Bernstein,” Vaccariello says, “and many try. His work is a great learning tool. And it never gets old or dated.”

Hearing the score 50 years later, Vaccariello says, “feels like hearing it for the first time.”

PODCAST: Listen to an interview with West Side Story Music Supervisor/Musical Director Patrick Vaccariello here.

Here’s a peek at Bernstein conducting “Dance at the Gym” for the 1985 studio recording of West Side Story.


West Side Story opens Wednesday, Oct. 27 and continues through Nov. 28 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 888 746 1799 or visit for information.