Rita Moreno is such a class act, it’s hard to imagine her as anything but a winner. In fact, her career has had more ups and downs than a commuter jet. In her autobiographical show, “Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup,” the legendary actress recounts the highs and lows with humor and considerable candor.
The show, which made its world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre Wednesday, is part show-biz memoir, part razzle-dazzle revue.
Written by Rep artistic director Tony Taccone and directed by David Galligan, the two-hour production integrates the elements fairly well. But it works best when Moreno speaks directly from experience.
Tracing her childhood from Puerto Rico to New York, Moreno muses on her early days as a dancer and kid actress (she signed a seven-year contract with MGM at age 16), even as her mother, an oft-married powerhouse, advises her daughter to “keep moving” at all costs.
Moreno takes those words to heart, toiling in thankless B movie roles as slaves, dancing girls and native sirens. Playing such “faceless utility ethnic” parts leaves her burned out before she’s 20, but Moreno keeps going; when she makes the cover of Life magazine, she knows she’s been given a second chance.
She cuts a wide swath through Hollywood, scoring great roles (Anita in “West Side Story”) and controversial ones (Jack Nicholson’s hooker in “Carnal Knowledge”.) She has an affair with Marlon Brando (“a romantic sinkhole”) and rebounds with a young Elvis Presley.
The show limns these stories with film clips and live musical numbers from “West Side Story,” her Broadway hit, “The Ritz” and long-running TV series, “Electric Company.”
Now 79, Moreno admits her knees aren’t what they used to be, but she still has plenty of moves. Precision dancers Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo give her excellent support; Cesar Cancino leads the nimble four-piece band.
Despite her successes – Moreno’s one of the few artists to win an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy – racism remained a constant in her career. She recalls the “West Side Story” shoot, which required all of the actors playing Sharks to wear makeup in the same muddy shade, and describes an ugly scene at a Hollywood party, where she narrowly escaped sexual assault.
Even in her sixties, Moreno says, she was still being asked to play “Mexican whorehouse madams.” In a showdown with one director, she finally summons the courage to refuse. Here, “Life Without Makeup” acquires its greatest power: as Moreno claims her dignity, she shows how a woman finally comes into her own.
Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. most Wednesdays, 2 or 8 p.m. Thursdays or Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 30
Tickets: $14.50 to $73
Contact: (510) 647-2949; www.berkeleyrep.org