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It's Chayanne's Autumn

The young entertainer, a sensation in the Spanish-speaking world, has just wrapped his first Hollywood movie, is readying a new album and is a new father to boot.

September 28, 1997|Kevin Baxter | Kevin Baxter is a Times staff writer

It's almost midnight on a warm, cloudless summer night when the crew of "Shut Up and Dance" finally breaks for lunch. As a small army of technicians, set designers and extras queues up before the catering truck, no one pays much attention to the effervescent, chain-talking young man who tags on to the back of the line.

It's not the first time Chayanne has been overlooked. Despite a career that has produced 28 gold and 19 platinum Spanish-language records, the Puerto Rican singer is virtually unknown outside Latin America. Even co-producer Lauren C. Weissman couldn't place the name when a Miami-based talent scout brought him by on the second of two daylong casting calls last fall.

"None of us," she says, "knew who Chayanne was."

But he won't be anonymous much longer. After just two auditions, Weissman and her team were so impressed, they cast him opposite Vanessa L. Williams in their salsa-flavored dance romance, which is scheduled to open Valentine's Day.

"We feel like we've discovered something," Weissman says now. "Chayanne is going to knock the socks off the acting world. He's going to be huge."

And, superlatives aside, that's hardly a minority view. While some originally may have considered it a gamble to cast an unrecognized actor in the lead of a Hollywood movie, Chayanne won many converts in four months of filming. In the trades, his dark good looks and charismatic screen presence have inspired comparisons to Antonio Banderas. Director Randa Haines likens him to Marlee Matlin, whom she directed to an Oscar in Matlin's film debut, "Children of a Lesser God." And Williams says he's "very sexy and very appealing. . . . I think he's got a promising future."

Pretty good reviews for an overnight success--even if it was two decades in the making.

Born Elmer Figueroa Arce in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico--a small town about 35 miles inland from San Juan, the capital--Chayanne, 29, got both his nickname and his musical talent from his mother, Irma. The nickname, which he earned as a toddler, was inspired by a TV show Irma and her husband, Quintino, watched during their first years of marriage in New York. The musical talent took only slightly longer to develop. Shortly after he learned to walk, Chayanne was dancing around the house with his mother and grandmother. And shortly after he learned to talk, he was singing with them.

By the age of 5, he was belting out hymns in church, accompanied by his sister on the guitar and his older brother on the accordion.

"So it was a family of music, folklore music," says Chayanne, the third of five children born to a teacher and a mid-level supervisor at a U.S. food company's San Juan plant. "Not professionals but just people that love music."

But the Figueroas lost their amateur status in 1978 when Chayanne, then 10, joined Los Chicos, a group of prodigies who soon came to rival Menudo, Puerto Rico's other pre-pubescent pop power.

"The group went from nothing to doing concerts for 30,000 people," Chayanne says. "In that time we were very popular."

So popular, in fact, they inspired a television show, a telenovela and eventually a movie, "Los Chicos en Conexion Caribe" (Los Chicos in Caribbean Connection), which played throughout Latin America. When the group broke up after four years, however, Chayanne was the only one to succeed in a solo career, acting in a TV series and another telenovela before recording, at age 17, the first of seven solo albums. His records have gone on to sell 4 million copies, produce 13 Top 10 Spanish-language hits and earn one Grammy nomination.

But after releasing the mega-hit "Provocame," and following it with a 16-country tour in 1993, Chayanne began to chart a new direction for his career.

"I had a lot of things happening in my life," he says. "That was the perfect time to change. Because the idea was changing."

So he split with longtime manager Gustavo Sanchez, placing Patricia Vega in charge of his Miami-based CHAF Enterprises. He also returned to acting with renewed gusto, playing the lead in the Puerto Rican film "Linda Sara"--under the direction of Oscar-nominated director Jacobo Morales--and starring in the Mexican telenovela "Volver a Empezar" (which aired in the U.S. on the Univision network and is currently being rerun in Los Angeles on KMEX-TV Channel 34). But, perhaps most of important of all, he began to study English.

"I was preparing myself for the future, to expand my career," he says. "I wanted to grow. And the United States . . . it's the country that, everything that you do here goes to the world.

"I'm just starting. I've only been doing this 19 years."

Southern California has been dry for weeks, yet the streets outside Eagle Rock's Riviera nightclub have been made to look as if a tropical storm has blown through. In this scene, the script has Chayanne pushing through the club's wide double doors just in time to see Williams, his jilted dance partner, driving off into the night.

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