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 a generation of U.S. audiences. 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. (Perhaps all this fruit explains why Miranda became one of the biggest gay icons this side of Judy Garland’s rainbow.)
Tutti Frutti as originally written by playwright Sam Mossler has undergone a number of permutations; its current version is pretty straightforward, 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.
Not that Tutti Frutti is – unlike Holbrook’s long-running (I saw it on Broadway in the 1960s!) An Evening With Mark Twain – exactly a one-person show. As that world famous philosopher Jimmy Durante aptly put, “Everybody wants to get into the act,” and various band members do, especially Geremy Dingle, a trombonist and comedian who straps an extra large schnoz on to play Durante (Miranda appeared on his 1950s TV program with disastrous consequences). Dingle steals a scene as Jerry Lewis in drag dancing and singing like Carmen in her last movie, 1953’s Scared Stiff. (Speaking of solo performances Dingle wrote and acted in a one man production of Hamlet called Adrenaline.) Jeff Markgraf leaves the bass long enough to portray rat packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. In addition to producing and musical directing, Kaye – who won accolades, including the Drama Critics Circle Award and L.A. Weekly Theater Award, as musical director of the hit Louis and Keely – Live at the Sahara — also wails on the saxophone and clarinet like a latter day Benny Goodman. And befitting a lady who wore multiple Tutti Frutti hats, Avila wears more than one hat in this show, serving as producer and costume designer, as well as playing the title role.
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.
Contemporary audiences and filmmakers flatter themselves by thinking today’s movies are more diverse than during Hollywood’s Golden Age. But the fact is that during Miranda’s heyday the world was less globalized and the silver screen had numerous ethnic actors – although to be sure they generally played celluloid stereotypes in supporting roles. Loin-clothed Sabu was discovered in India by documentarian Robert Flaherty for 1937’s Elephant Boy, and went on to play Arabs, Indians, etc., in 1940’s The Thief of Baghdad, 1942’s Arabian Nights and 1947’s Black Narcissus.
Dorothy Lamour, who didn’t have a drop of Polynesian blood, portrayed the South Seas “Sarong Girl” in a bevy of pictures such as 1937’s The Hurricane opposite her repeat co-star, “Sarong Boy” Jon Hall, who was reputedly part-Tahitian. Charlie Chan the Chinese detective was usually portrayed by Caucasian actors such as Warner Oland in “yellowface,” although his “number one son,” Keye Luke, was actually of Asian origin, as was “exotic” Anna May Wong, who co-starred with Marlene Dietrich in 1932’s Shanghai Express but lost the lead role in 1937’s The Good Earth to white actress Louise Rainer, who won the Oscar for it. Black roles were played by Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel, etc. Along with Dolores Del Rio and Maria Montez (who also played Arabs or Polynesians), Carmen Miranda typified La-La-Land’s Latina.
Yet, strangely enough, 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. Towards 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.
It’s interesting to note that Oliver Stone’s new documentary about Latin America’s left-leaning governments, South of the Border, closes with one of Miranda’s signature tunes, “South American Way,” from her first Hollywood movie, 1940’s Down Argentine Way (although it is sung by Cucu Diamantes in Stone’s doc). South of the Border also co-stars a Brazilian: Pres. Lula da Silva.
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.
Remember, although you’ve been advised of your Miranda rights, you really don’t have the right to remain silent during this mirthful, good fun show.
Carmen Miranda, The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat is being performed on Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. 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.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”