The soul of Carmen Miranda
By Ed Rampell
Here’s your Miranda warning: You have the right to be charmed, beguiled and to go bananas during the Hollywood stage production of Carmen Miranda, The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat. Magi Avila incarnates the 1940s dancing and singing sensation of stage, screen and nightclubs who personified Latin America for many Americans. Like the more risqué Josephine Baker clad in her banana leaf skirt (and little else) who represented “deepest darkest Africa,” Carmen was garbed in often midriff-baring garments and outrageous haberdashery with, and was surrounded by, fruit motifs, suggesting the supposed agricultural bounty of those sun drenched lands south of the border.
Tutti Frutti as originally written by playwright Sam Mossler has undergone a number of permutations; its current version is pretty straight forward, taking the form of one of Carmen’s fabled acts at Las Vegas’ El Rancho club. Avila uncannily impersonates the star from Brazil, expertly performing various rhythmic Miranda dance and song numbers from her live acts and films, such as “Chica Chica Boom Chic” and “I, Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi, I Like You Very Much” from 1941’s That Night in Rio. There are more costume changes than at a runway show, and between musical routines performed live by the six piece “Carmen Miranda Orchestra” led by musical director Dennis Kaye, Avila/Miranda recalls Carmen’s rags to riches life story.
A humble barber’s daughter, she rose to stardom in Brazil and was brought to Broadway in 1939 to appear in Streets of Paris. After a star-crossed return to Rio, Miranda realized that, as Thomas Wolfe put it, you can’t go home again. La-La-Land beckoned, turning her into one of moviedom’s most popular and (along with her nightclub shows) one of America’s (North as well as South) wealthiest women.
How does Avila -- a Mexican actress with big and little screen credits, such as guest starring in the cable police drama, The Shield -- stack up against the real Miranda? Well, the voluptuous Avila is more, uh, stacked than Carmen, who was slimmer. Like many comics Miranda had a sort of funny face, while Avila is prettier, but with her winning ear-to-ear smile (which threatens to slice her low hanging earrings off) Magi succeeds in projecting Carmen’s easygoing humor and warmth. Avila can samba and mambo with the best of them, and has Carmen’s kitschy choreography down pat, along with her lovely singing and accented voice. (Although the Tutti Frutti lady reminds us that it’s really all those Norte Americanos who speak with funny accents.) Magi does Miranda proud, and is to Carmen what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain.
Beneath Carmen’s perpetual grin and obsession with gaiety and laughter, one senses she may have had a sort of manic personality using frivolity to shield her from life’s slings and arrows, which Tutti Frutti hints at, but doesn’t dwell on. Magi/Miranda relates her disappointment at returning to Brazil after her Broadway debut, only to be criticized in the press and high society for being “Americanized” and an “over-sexualized” misrepresentation of Latinas.
Yet, Carmen Miranda actually was not actually Brazilian – as a 1995 documentary subtitled Bananas Are My Business pointed out, she was a European born in Portugal, whose family migrated to Brazil. In addition, during that homophobic period, as Tutti Frutti alludes to, she was accused of being a lesbian because she was an unmarried woman in her early thirties (absolutely scandalous!) and was derided as a “queen” by the tabloid press. Toward the end of her career, Carmen became a campy caricature, if not a figure of ridicule. Perhaps these contradictions led to Carmen’s unhappily ever after ending and early death. She burned briefly but brightly.
In any case, it’s hard for a stage play, especially a low budget one in a 99-seater, to compete with the big screen’s big casts and bigger budgets, production values and special effects, epitomized by Busby Berkeley’s eye-popping, colorful extravaganza in the number where Carmen sings "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat" in the 1943 musical, The Gang’s All Here. Nevertheless Magi Avila’s version of Carmen Miranda acquits itself well, providing an unforgettable, highly enjoyable evening at the theatre.
Carmen Miranda, The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat runs through June 27 at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., CA 90038. For more info: 323/960-7740; www.carmenmirandashow.com or www.plays411.com/carmen