Viva the nostalgia

Times Staff Writer

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."

The show's constant mixing and matching of actors of different ages and styles probably helps explain its ability to attract diverse audiences. Edith Gonzalez, who plays Elena, is the performer most associated with that role. But seven other actresses have assayed the part, including soap opera star Itati Cantoral, currently starring here in a well-received production of "Cabaret." (There has been talk of pop star Gloria Trevi taking the role, but so far nothing has come of it.) Ernesto Gomez Cruz, a respected veteran character actor, is another mainstay.

Attendance also has been boosted by some clever novelty casting, such as the recent addition of the popular wrestler Latin Lover, so-called for his superlative physique and suave, ponytailed persona.

"The fear, the panic is the same," says the actor-athlete, whose real name is Victor Manuel Resendiz Ruiz, when asked to compare wrestling and acting. "What's different is that here you have to talk! So my character is increasing little by little."

Cast members say they're grateful for the steady work that "Aventurera" provides, given the dearth of opportunities in Mexico's improving but still undernourished film industry and single-minded television industry, which produces little dramatic content apart from telenovelas.

"Here, unfortunately, entertainment is made by younger generations, and so the premier actors, the actors with experience, are left behind," says Xavier Ortiz, who transforms himself six times a week from a strapping actor into the blond, statuesque Bugambilia, Elena's cross-dressing cabaret colleague. Even some audience members get to share the "Aventurera" spotlight, as performers interact with them and, in one musical number, invite them onstage to dance.

"It's a piece of theater that reflects a Mexico that we all love so much, that holds us all in the movie theater," says Ortiz. "It's the manner of speaking, the pachucos, the zoot suits, the type [of culture] that grew up in the border and that is part American and part Mexican, and the cabaret, the music, the dances, the influence of Cuba, the African rhythms."

Adapted for the stage by playwright Carlos Olmos from the screenplay by Alvaro Custodio and Carlos Sampelayo, the show was conceived as an "environmental musical," with part of the audience seated onstage behind the performers.

By Broadway standards, it's all pretty informal. Audience members seated onstage are allowed to come and go at will, for bathroom breaks or whatever. (At last Friday's 6 p.m. show, an elderly couple shuffled across the set and back to their seats just as the production was reaching its climax.) Two large video screens mounted on either side of the proscenium allow upper-balcony viewers to catch all the action in close-up. Waiters selling popcorn and beer, and salesgirls with "Aventurera" CDs, wander the aisles during performances. Padded with comic monologues, musical interludes and ad-libs, the show runs nearly three intermission-less hours.

That should be enough to keep U.S. audiences engaged when the frisky "Aventurera" sets off on its next adventure.

"It makes us very happy" to prepare to tour the U.S., Santamarina says, "because it's a project that's completely Mexican: everything -- the dance, the actors, the musicians. With all the Latin community that there is in the United States, specifically, with all our countrymen, it's a great honor and a source of much pride to be able to do it, a Mexican work, and to bring it across the border to another country."

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