The Austin Chronicle

In Person

El Cabaret de 'Caramelo'

By Belinda Acosta, August 15, 2003, Books

El Cabaret de 'Caramelo'

Jump-Start Performance Company,

San Antonio

Sunday, Aug. 10

It was the leopard-skin bikini that stopped -- then started -- the show. Dancer S.T. Shimi wore the outfit, as reportedly worn by the legendary nightclub dancer Tongolele. Yet Shimi's jaw-dropping performance as Tongolele was only the first of many delights on Sunday night at El Cabaret de Caramelo, a reading/performance inspired by Sandra Cisneros' most recent novel (Knopf, $24, see austinchronicle. com/issues/dispatch/2002-10-04/books_roundup4.html for the Chronicle's review). The evening was a re-creation of a 1950s Mexican cabaret, complete with cocktail tables, starched white tablecloths, and frosted votive candles. The event was a fundraiser for San Antonio's Jump-Start Performance Company.

Cisneros was elegant in a shoulder-baring black sheath corseted in the back, accented with black satin elbow-length gloves and a raven rebozo so light and thin it could, as described in her novel, "be pulled through a wedding ring." She read a chapter from Caramelo in which Aunt Norma (aka Auntie Light-Skin) tells the novel's central character, Lala, of a fortuitous encounter with Tongolele. Alongside her tale of being in the right place at the wrong time is the story of "The Man Whose Name No One Is Allowed to Mention" (the chapter's title), the man Auntie loved and lost. Her story is told against the backdrop of Auntie Light-Skin's fond memories of Mexican stars from stage and screen: Tin Tan, Cantinflas, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Enfante, Toña la Negra, and others who call to mind smoke-filled nightclubs, ruby lips, curves, cleavage, pomaded hair, cocktails sipped from tall glasses, cigarette girls, dapper waiters, and astonishingly handsome men in suits cut to fit.

Interspersed with Cisneros' spirited reading were film clips from such 1950s Mexican films as Soy Charro de Levita and Chucho el Remendado. Kevin Evans sang the timeless "Besame Mucho," while the playfully sultry Lisa Suarez, dressed in a puckered, siren-red gown with a net flounce, sang "Cancion del Alma" and "Cuidadito" à la Toña la Negra. Liliana Horwath and Octavio Benitez provided an energetic floorshow, as did the dazzling Shimi. The four-piece George Prado Orquesta -- for the evening referred to as Orquesta Caramelo -- provided period music. The dignified ensemble played as effortlessly as breathing, bringing magic to an already magical evening. Dashing in white tails was Allen Horwath, who served as the evening's emcee.

Tears were inevitable. It's hard to say exactly why. The enchanted atmosphere moved some. The tale of "a grief asleep inside her heart" got to others. Some said it was the film clips and glorious performances that brought back fond memories. It was an evening that made you miss your lover. An evening that made you want to dance until your feet ached, finding a second wind to search for an all-night taqueria, careful not to spill salsa on now-wilted gowns and crumpled jackets.

"This kind of beauty does not come easy," said Steve Bailey, executive director of the Jump-Start Performance Company, as he thanked all the performers and volunteers who made El Cabaret de Caramelo possible. But magic never looked so effortless.

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