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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Rita Moreno Captivates her Audience at the Empire Plush Room

Also see Richard's reviews of The Gamester and 45 Seconds from Broadway

Rita MorenoThe divine Rita Moreno makes a triumphant return to the Empire Plush Room of the York Hotel after a two year absence. Once again, the multi-award-winning 73-year-old artist is mesmerizing audiences in the intimate room with her singing and storytelling. Her friendliness and openness to the audience is beautifully accomplished. She has that certain charisma that few cabaret people have in reaching an audience.

Moreno was raised in Puerto Rico and came to America with her family at an early age. Her rise to fame started when 'Rosita Moreno' made her film debut as a "bad girl" in the United Artists production of So Young So Bad in 1950. She went on to appear in many films. I first met her when she played Rosa Zacharias in Summer and Smoke on the Paramount lot. She had that certain spark that made her different from the crowd. Ms. Moreno is one of the rare performers to win all four of show business' top honors. She won an Oscar for her role as Anita in West Side Story, a Tony for the wild and wonderful Googie Gomez in The Ritz, Emmys for her appearances on "The Muppet Show" and "The Rockford Files," and a Grammy for The Electric Company Album. Ms. Moreno is happily married with grandchildren and lives in Berkeley - she tells the audience that this was the best move that she ever made.

After a brief introduction, she comes sashaying out, looking svelte in her white satin gown with white marabou feathers. The feathers gave her a bit of trouble on opening night, prompting her to say, "Wait until I get my hands on Bob Mackie." She appeared to be a little nervous in her opening number of Charles Strouse's "But Alive" and told the audience she "was having a little voice problem." Her voice was not strong in the higher register, especially when she got to the line, "I'm feeling bombastic, I'm alive."

The cabaret artist got into the groove with Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman's "The Best is Yet to Come," which was very apropos since she regained her composure and voice. She was sublime in "Love Is a Simple Thing" from New Faces of '52. Rita talks of her childhood and how she worshiped movies stars like Deanna Durbin with her clean-cut men with names like Richard or Ralph who surrounded the star. She says Ms. Durbin was the ideal Protestant woman, while she (Moreno) always ended up with men named Sheldon, and that launches her into a number with that fellow's name. She admits her first love affair took place when she was 17, with a very much older man with "grey hair at the temples," then goes into the wonderful song from Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel, "I Won't Send Roses," which is how the love affair ended. It is a very touching rendition of the song.

Ms. Moreno then sings a rather slow song, "The Way He Makes Me Feel," which is not very effective; however, she immediately segues into "He Loves Me," beautifully sung, followed by a dramatic reading of "My Foolish Heart" which is marvelously executed. The diva breaks the romantic mood with a swinging version of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "Some Cats Know." This is a finger-snapping, jazzy interpretation with the trio of Ted Summers, Russell Kassoff and Kenny Miller providing backup on drums, bass and piano.

The highlight of the evening is when Moreno takes on the character from The Ritz, Googie Gomez, and imitates her mother's thick accent that annihilates the English language. Her Spanglish rendition of Ethel Merman singing "I Had a Dream" from Gypsy is hilarious. Even though Christmas is over, she sings a hip-swinging, pulse-beating Puerto Rican yuletide song called "Aguinaldo." It is not like any Christmas carol you have ever heard. The whole trio gets into the mood with maracas, and you can't help but sway to the beat. She ends the 80-minute program with the rousing "Don't Rain on My Parade" to a standing ovation.

Her fans won't let her go without an encore, and back she comes with a wonderful story about her days in Puerto Rico when her mother bought a big console Emerson radio. She tells how her mother was so proud of the big radio that she knitted a covering with flowers to completely cover the unit, with only the dials and screen showing. The family would sit in a semi-circle and just face the radio listening to all of the programs. "That's when people had imagination," she says. Rita particularly loved the song Tallulah sang on NBC's "The Big Show" and she ends the night with "I'll Be Seeing You" to thunderous applause from a most appreciative audience.

Rita Moreno and the trio will be appearing at the Empire Plush Room, 940 Sutter Street, San Francisco through Sunday, February 6th. Paula West and the Eric Reed Trio come in February 8th through March 20th, and Sharon McNight returns in Betty, Betty & Bette April 5 through April 23. For reservations please call 415-885-2800 or visit www.empireplushroom.com.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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