The Bay Area’s resident superstar, Rita Moreno, opens a new cabaret act at San Francisco’s Rrazz Room on Wednesday, Nov. 5. But she was recently at the Rrazz Room as an audience member for her dear friend Chita Rivera’s Bay Area cabaret debut.
“We got together afterwards and just laughed and laughed,” Moreno says.
Moreno and Rivera often joke that each has been mistaken for the other more times than they can count. Rivera originated the role of Anita on Broadway in West Side Story and Moreno won an Academy Award in the same role, but in the movie version.
So why don’t the two durable divas put an end to the confusion and do a show together?
“We’ve been hearing that for years,” Moreno says. “But what would we do? The two of us would burn up the stage.”
That’s probably true. Moreno, who will be 77 in December, seemingly never stops. The kind of energy that has won her an Oscar, an Emmy (several Emmys, actually), a Tony and a Grammy still fuels her to work on TV (in recent years she has been a regular on “Oz” and “Cane”), in concert, on the lecture circuit and on the theater stage. She regularly appears at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which just happens to be the professional theater company closest to the Berkeley hills home she shares with her husband of 43 years, Dr. Leonard Gordon.
“Every once in a while, my husband and I look out the window at the view across the bay and say `What a good thing we did moving here.’ We really love it,” Moreno says.
Shortly after Moreno moved to Berkeley in 1998, she made her cabaret debut at the now-defunct Empire Plush Room in the York Hotel. She dazzled critics and audiences alike and has since become a cabaret regular both here and in New York.
The show she’s opening Wednesday is called Little Tributes, and it started out to pay homage to all the singers and composers that Moreno admires. The show sort of took a different direction, but the title stuck, and there are some tributes – to Peggy Lee, to Harold Arlen.
“I’m doing a lot of Broadway stuff this time,” Moreno says. “I have a gift for finding the one song in a hit musical that nobody has ever heard. I did Sunset Boulevard and there’s a song that I think comes at a seminal moment in the show. It’s just electric, and people don’t know it. Norma realizes that Joe is very quickly falling out of love with her, and the song is her desperate attempt to bring him back into her arms. It’s a short but really wonderful piece. Quite dramatic. I love becoming her again for those few moments.”
Putting together a new act is a labor of love for Moreno. She keeps a pad and pencil at all times in case she hears a song she likes, and she has been known to drop $1,000 at New York’s Colony record store buying CDs that intrigue her.
Curiously, Moreno says she doesn’t think about the audience at all when piecing together a new act.
“I just have to believe that if I like it, they’ll like it,” she says. “In other words, I trust them.”
The act will feature ballads, two Spanish numbers (“One with castanets!” Moreno enthuses) and what Moreno calls the “opener of openers.”
“I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it’s Kander and Ebb, and I bet you’ve never heard it,” Moreno says. “I don’t come in shouting like Ethel Merman or anything, but it’s really delicious.”
After the cabaret act, Moreno will do some serious thinking about her next project with Berkeley Rep.
“I have a director, (Berkeley Rep artistic director) Tony Taccone, but we don’t have a play,” Moreno says. “We’re planning something, but it will take a while because it’s something more personal as opposed to an existing play. It’s something quite original.”
She’ll also attempt to be home more enjoying her daughter, Fernanda, who lives nearby, and her two grandsons, who Moreno describes as “my heart and soul.”
“What a discovery it is to be home and cook a lot,” she says. “I love to cook and garden and just luxuriate in my beautiful house. I am quite active but not as much as before. Home has always been important, but it has become more important. Now that I’m a whole bunch older, I want to take advantage of this wonderful thing of home and family life.”
But don’t expect Moreno to become a total homebody.
“I’m not planning a retirement. I can’t conceive of such a thing.”
Rita Moreno’s Little Tributes opens Wednesday, Nov. 5 and runs through Nov. 23 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$55 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit www.therrazzroom.com or www.ticketweb.com.
Here are Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera and (?) Bette Midler performing “America” from West Side Story at a benefit in LA: