Even though I have followed Rita Moreno’s career pretty closely since she won the Oscar for 1961’s "West Side Story," I was taken aback by the depth of her vocal talent in evidence Friday night at Artemus Ham Hall.
After all, her singing was dubbed for "West Side Story," she kidded the musical numbers in her Tony-winning turn in "The Ritz," and her television song-and-dance career has consisted, as far as I can tell, of mostly light, tongue-in-cheek sketches. I had expected the 76-year-old actress to be charming and elegant and to rely on style. My bad.
The lady has plenty of style, but also first-rate, undiluted talent. Featuring a three-piece band, her 75-minute concert — part of the New York Stage & Beyond series at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas — was a hearty blend of traditional Spanish tunes, pop standards, folk songs and Broadway. She remains gifted with a large vocal range, a powerful belt and a velvety whisper that infuses ballads with youthful sensuality.
But what makes Moreno a memorable performer is her ability to act her lyrics: She managed to slip into different characterizations with each composition. Her soul seemed to shed decades as she became Harold Arlen/Truman Capote’s ingenue from "House of Flowers" in the delicate first-love aria "I Never Has Seen Snow." She became a senior citizen again when she turned "But Alive!" (from "Applause") into a paean to old-age. And she offered up a version of Peggy Lee’s "Fever" — complete with slinking, self-mocking moves atop a piano — that was seductive enough to dismiss any suggestion that passion mellows with age.
Moreno enjoyed a comfortable rapport with the audience. Her small-talk was fun. After her steamy "Fever" atop the piano, she quipped, "Nothing in life gives me more pleasure than singing that song in that manner at 76." She added that an elderly man once said to her, "In my next life, I would like to come back as your piano."
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.REVIEW Who: Rita Moreno When:Oct. 3 Where: Artemus Ham Hall, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Grade: A