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Rita Moreno did not need to put any icing on the delicious song cake she baked on her one-night stand in town. But she has been in show business for better than 60 years, and there are very few houses she doesn’t know how to bring down.
So when she took off her shoes, hitched up her skirts and exposed her dancer’s gams while writhing around atop a grand piano in the new Conga Room — her first Los Angeles gig in more than 25 years — she got herself a resounding ovation.
This might have been for her 77-year-old limbs or the 50-year-old song she was singing, but it should have been for the musicianly courage she showed by tackling Peggy Lee’s intimidating classic “Fever,” by Little Willie John.
She kept showing that pluck all night. “My Ship,” for instance, is one of the more fiendishly difficult compositions by Kurt Weill. Moreno betrayed no fear; on the contrary, she nestled up to each note, deftly disrobed it and entertained it all afternoon in bed.
“With One Look,” the Franz Waxman song Norma Desmond sings in “Sunset Boulevard,” is another work that cavorts all over the place with shifting tempos, keys and moods. But it was meat and potatoes for Moreno, who created the song “America” in “West Side Story,” among her many entertainment feats. She daintily devoured its every nuance.
Lee didn’t scare her, Gloria Swanson didn’t scare her, so it was no shock that Miles Davis didn’t scare her. She sang Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” its understandably seldom-heard lyrics about the fountain waters kissing the roses, with passion and proportion rivaling Davis’ treatment on his classic “Sketches of Spain.”
Moreno cleaned up the quasi-racist title “I Never Has Seed Snow,” making it “Seen,” but the picturesque argot of the rest of Truman Capote’s lyrics she made clear and moving.
Between all this, the slender Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy winner kept up a lightly bubbling line of patter about playing her radio in Spanish Harlem, where she grew up. Or playing the Carlyle with a peppermint ball in her cheek. Or reading the memorial copy of the New York Times for the day she was born — Dec. 11, 1931 — when you could buy a suit at Hart Schaffner & Marx for $39.
Her husband Leonard, the doctor, gave her that bit of history for her birthday, and the audience got to know him too. Lucky fellow. (partialdiff)
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