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Viva the nostalgia

'Aventurera,' long a lively theatrical touchstone for Mexicans, readies for a visit to L.A.

January 20, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — FROM outside, the Teatro Blanquita is a monument to faded glamour. While theater patrons wait in line for the evening's first performance, little boys prowl the streets pleading for change. A dead schnauzer lies a few yards from the main entrance. The once-gaudy venue's tart epithet -- the "poor man's fine arts center" -- seems well earned on this smog-streaked evening in the heart of the Mexican capital.

But inside the 2,400-seat theater, time appears to have stopped half a century ago. Onstage, female dancers in sequins and bright plumage shimmy seductively. Jacked-up guys in fedoras and gangster suits swivel to mambo beats pumped out by the live orchestra. And when the venerable Mexican actress Carmen Salinas takes the stage and launches into a comic monologue skewering Mexican politicians, the mixed-age audience roars its approval.

Another performance of "Aventurera" (Adventuress) is underway -- number 6,000 or so, if anyone's still counting. Having run for nearly 8 1/2 years, "Aventurera" is unofficially the most successful theatrical presentation in this antique city's history. For flashiness, cast size (more than 60 performers, including the live orchestra) and the quantity of star actors (of varying luminescence) who've drifted in and out of it, as well as sheer longevity, not another current production in Mexico can touch it.

"There is no other show, no other spectacle of this magnitude, in which you have action, you have dance, you have an array of costumes, you have a live orchestra," says Eduardo Santamarina, a popular telenovela star who plays dashing thug Lucio Saenz, or "El Guapo." "And the people view it with much affection because it recalls the era of the '40s, of the '50s, of the great cabarets."

Now, having conquered the capital, as well as a number of other Mexican cities where it has played, "Aventurera" is setting its sights north of the border. On March 25, its producers plan to launch a U.S. tour that will open in San Francisco and, they hope, include Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, San Diego and New York, says Salinas, one of the show's prime investors as well as one of its stars. Though the Los Angeles date is not yet firm, Salinas says she expects the show to arrive in April or May at the Gibson Amphitheatre (formerly the Universal), where it has played at least once before.

Adapted from a 1950 cult musical film starring Cuban bombshell Ninon Sevilla, "Aventurera" is either an irresistible piece of melodramatic kitsch, a sly proto-feminist parable or some hothouse hybrid of the two. Its story line -- shocking at the time for a mass entertainment -- tracks the wavering fortunes of Elena Tejero, a middle-class ingenue from Chihuahua who gets strong-armed into working in a Ciudad Juarez cabaret-cum-brothel. Wild plot twists, coolly insinuating dialogue and over-the-top costumed dance numbers (Aztec princesses, anyone?) abound.

The movie, which made Sevilla a star, ushered in a new cinematic genre: the cabaretera film. Often set in the urban demimonde of nightclubs, showgirls and gangsters, these movies were the Mexican equivalent of film noir. They expressed a worldly, jaded vision of life that was the antithesis of the naive romanticism and singing cowboys of the old ranchera films. "Aventurera" -- like another, very different but key film of the same year, Luis Bunuel's "Los Olvidados" -- captured the social turbulence and disillusionment of the post-World War II era. But most Mexicans of a certain age likely associate the picture with the era's classic songs (including the Agustin Lara-penned title tune), the nation's booming, government-backed film industry of the so-called Golden Age (mid-1930s to late 1950s) and the louche charms of a Mexico that no longer exists.

The nostalgia factor also draws audiences on the other side of the frontera.

"Many people can't return here, you know that. They are illegals there," says Salinas, speaking of the United States while sitting backstage in her dressing room one night between performances. "But they are not prohibited from seeing a work that reminds them of their past, their people, their fathers, the music that their fathers danced to, the mambo and the cha-cha-cha, the songs 'Besame Mucho,' 'Aventurera' by Agustin Lara, the delicious mambo of [Damaso] Perez Prado."

If the career of any Mexican performer now alive encapsulates that fabled, distant era, it is Salinas'. With 100 movie credits to her name, from Mexican classics to bit parts in such Hollywood films as Tony Scott's "Man on Fire," Salinas is easily one of the most recognizable faces in Mexican popular entertainment. In "Aventurera," she plays Elena's wary mother-in-law-to-be, and when she first takes the stage, belting out a song, the 72-year-old actress taps into an obvious reservoir of goodwill.

"Carmen Salinas is a great actress," says her costar Santamarina. "She is unique for us here in Mexico."

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