Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Rita Moreno's Life Without Makeup, A Delicate Balance and Larry Blum's Blink and You Might Miss Me
Life Without Makeup is a beautiful memoir, thanks to director Tony Taccone who took the cluttered and larger-than-life pieces of a life story and refined them into a first-rate piece of entertainment. The text captures the star's guts and glamour, and Moreno is magnetic as she tells the story of her life. She particularly shines while she is in character, especially when she portrays the diva in a scene from Terrence McNally's bathhouse farce The Ritz (she won a Tony for the role) or the hooker in Carnal Knowledge. She still has great moves when reprising her enduring performance as Anita in West Side Story. Her singing and dancing with two athletic hunks Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo in Berinstein and Sondheim's "America" is dynamic.
Moreno is immersed in the nostalgia of the Golden Age of Hollywood. She starts her memoir as a five-year-old girl named Rosita Dolores Alverio, who sails from Puerto Rico to New York on a ship with a name that is translated as "Stupid Face" in English. She talks about seeing the Statue of Liberty as the ship pulls into the New York harbor; a projection on a large screen behind her shows the Statue of Liberty holding a large ice cream cone. Moreno tells of growing up in New York's Spanish Harlem and about her relationship with her five-time-married mother (a "narcissist"). There is a series of attainments, slip-ups, passions and regrets as she makes her way in show business, even working as a dancer in a Spanish Harlem nightclub. (She confides that she fell in love with one of the Spanish dancers).
The performer commands the stage when talking about her early career as a contract player at MGM in the 1940s and '50s, serving as a "utility ethnic" in numerous roles with what she calls a "universal ethnic accent." She played Latinas, American Indians and East Indians, as well as a Siamese in The King and I. Louis B. Mayer said she looked like a "Spanish Elizabeth Taylor." On the large screen there are some great clips from her movies, including her first film Toast of New Orleans in which she danced before Mario Lanza. The legendary actress talks about five years dating and living in what she says was a "romantic black hole" with Marlon Brando ("I think he was probably the sexiest man I've ever known in my life") and brief assignations with Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes.
She had to fight against racism, and tells how the movie producers made her straighten her hair and tamper her complexion; they even changed her name. She was that young starlet who was mauled by a brunch of movie moguls at industry parties (Harry Cohen of Columbia's first words to her as they were dancing were "I want to fuck you"). There was a long period of time during which she received no offers of parts in film. When offers finally did come they were a series of "B" films.
Life Without Makeup's second act is about Ms. Moreno going to Broadway where she played the female lead in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window and gave her Tony winning performance in The Ritz. Her happiest five years followed, when she appeared on the PBS series "The Electric Company." There is a delightful clip of her performing Tom Lehrer's "The Menu Song" to a young Morgan Freeman. Moreno talks about her long marriage to the late Leonard Gordon, a physician in Berkeley. She concludes the night of entertainment with stories of the highs and lows of working with Jerome Robbins on West Side Story.
Moreno sings songs ranging from Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "Stormy Weather" to Sondheim and Styne's "Everything's Coming up Roses" backed by César Cancino on piano, Sascha Jacobsen on bass, Alex Murzyn on reeds, and David Rokeach on percussion. Alexander V. Nichols' video and lighting designs are terrific. Videos show early photographs of Rita, scenes from several of her films, and clips from the wonderful "The Electric Company" series. This is indeed a night to rememberyou leave the theatre feeling you are lucky to have seen and heard this fabulous actress' story. We should all be so lucky to have the energy and spirit of this woman as she nears the age of 80.
Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup runs through October 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. You can also obtain tickets at 888-4-BRT-Tix (toll free). Just started at Berkeley Rep is the world premiere of Bill Cain's How to Write a New Book for the Bible, running through November 20 on the Thrust Stage.
This marks the fourth time I have seen this powerful and edgy play, starting with the 1966 New York production starring Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy and Rosemary Harris at the Martin Beck. I saw the revival at the Plymouth Theatre in 1996 with George Grizzard, Elizabeth Wilson and Elaine Stritch, and the last time I saw it was in London at the Haymarket in 1997 where it starred Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and John Standing.
A Delicate Balance is a cross between T.S. Elliot's The Family Reunion and Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner. It's a drawing room comedy of manners with chilly overtones of existential anxiety. It is a challenge for actors and audiences alike, and this company rises to the challenge magnificently.
Tobias (Ken Grantham) and Agnes (Kimberly King) are rich denizens of American suburbia who suddenly find their best friends, Harry (Charles Dean) and Edna (Anne Darragh), turning up at their door seeking sanctuary from their own domestic demons. The result is not just a mystical and social challenge to the hosts, but they also have to cope with their daughter Julia (Carrie Paff), who at the age 36 has been divorced four times, and Agnes's inebriated sister Clair (Jamie Jones). The drama could be considered to be about the extroverted isolation of our country itself since Clair says, "We're not a communal nation ... giving but not sharing, outgoing but not friendly." The struggle is maintaining the delicate balance among the characters.
Kimberly King is wonderful as the icy Agnes. She brings a marvelous mixture of elegant haughtiness, cleverness and awareness to the character. She beautifully sets off one verbal zinger after another to Tobias and Clair. Ken Grantham gives a great understated performance as the husband Tobias, who moves from ineffectualness to an almost desperate need for sacrifice and pain. Jamie Jones is perfect as the hard drinking, yodeling, accordion-wielding Claire. It's a showy role that could be comic, but Jones plays the character as a woman determined to drown her own private fears.
Carrie Paff gives a flawless performance in the difficult role of the hysterical child-woman Julia. Her throwing of a tantrum in the second act is awesome. Charles Dean and Anne Darragh are impeccable as the frightened friends Henry and Edna. They radiate the fear factor of this intensive drama ("We got frightened. We got scared. We were terrified.").
Fear could easily be another character in the play. It is an unnamed fear that moves them out of their house and into the middle of the chaotic home of Agnes and Tobias. Agnes also labels fear as "the terror, or the plague" and she states that Harry and Edna have brought the plague with them. All of them have fear in form or another.
Tom Ross's production plays out on Richard Olmsted's detailed living room set with beautiful lighting by Kurt Landisman. He bathes the final act in a memorably ironic sunshine glow.
A Delicate Balance plays through October 23rd at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. Their next production will be The Soldier's Tale, musical arrangement by Jonathan Khuner, based on Igor Stravinsky's 1918 musical work. The translation of C.F. Ramuz' book is by Donald Pippin. It opens on November 11 and runs through December 18th.
Photo: David Allen
A Clever Night of Hollywood Nostalgia with Larry Blum
Los Angeles comedian and raconteur Larry Blum brought his brisk 65-minute personal journey in show business to the SF Fringe Festival on September 9th at the Exit Theatre. The hilarious show was called Blink and You Might Miss Me.
For every star in Hollywood there are hundreds of Larry Blums, hoping for their one big break in movies. I knew quite a few of them when working in Hollywood for fifty years. Many worked as extras just to pay the rent. Larry Blum harbors no resentment since he told the full house that he spent his life in the business that he loved. He told of how he had a great time and collected enough stories to keep the audience amused.
While growing up in New York, he fell in love with musical theatre and began his show business career dancing in productions such as I Married An Angel with Phyllis Newman and Bye Bye Birdie with Lucie Arnaz, and actually being groped by Van Johnson in How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. He played the role of Greg in the international production of A Chorus Line for one year.
Blum told engaging stories about Barry Manilow doing "The Third Barry Manilow Special" plus dancing in "The Bea Arthur Special" and on "The Tonight Show" where he danced as a bearded rabbi in a takeoff on Fiddler on the Roof. There were stories about his dancing on "Solid Gold" and in the film Xanadu. Some of his film appearances that were of the "if you bleak you would miss him" variety were shown. He used a laser pointer to pin point himself out on the fast-moving films.
Larry's love of the business was apparent and he recently has enjoyed the honor of escorting the glamorous women of television and film as they ascend the stairs to the stage to accept various awards. He talked about helping Susan Lucci up to stage to accept her soap opera award. In fact, he is still getting residuals on this moment on the screen since Ms. Lucci uses it in commercials for her products.
Larry Blum is an ingenious, witty, accomplished storyteller who sifts his stories through a flashy gay sensibility. He tells stories about the rich and famous, with their warts and all; he actually prefers the warts in some of the stories. Director Stan Zimmerman gives the 65 minutes a brisk and stylish production.
Blum appeared three times during the SF Fringe Festival that was held at The Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy Street, San Francisco. It ended on September 18th.