The Girls Can't Help It

Call it drag, call it nouveau vaudeville -- Little Havana's Teatro de Bellas Artes' Midnight Follies is all entertainment

Unsure that she would get any response at all, Gonzalez announced an audition for a drag show. To her surprise, 70 men showed up. Gonzalez and a choreographer selected seven transvestite performers and four male dancers. The show, dubbed Midnight Follies, premiered on Valentine's Day 1986.

After almost ten years, the two-hour Midnight Follies attracts a steady weekend (Saturday night at midnight, Sunday night at 9:00) audience that fluctuates between sparser midsummer crowds of a few dozen people to full houses of 300 for the special expanded, three-hour extragavanzas staged every two months, for which Midnight Follies fanatics reserve seats weeks in advance, showing up with bouquets of flowers for the stars. Each performer seems to have her own coterie of local fans, but the theater also is a regular stop for visitors to Miami from Latin America, where the show has a reputation as the Spanish La Cage aux Folles. On Sunday at nine, at a repeat performance of the Saturday-night spectacular, Spanish-speaking senior citizens are bused to Bellas Artes from residences in Miami Beach. And the show has found a new following among recently arrived exiles who never had a chance to see a drag show in the antigay climate of Castro's Cuba, where such performances traditionally have been outlawed, although some drag shows have been permitted recently as the island has opened up to foreign tourists.

But when the Little Havana production premiered, the Latin community was wary of its content, and only a handful of people showed up for those first Saturday-night performances. Local Spanish-speaking journalists also seemed reluctant to review the show. "They thought it was something else," Gonzalez remembers. "People thought the performers were going to come out in their underwear or something."

Midnight Follies, which changes its repertoire and costumes every December but has maintained the same overall format throughout the years, has neither the cachet of an underground drag scene nor the sassy camp of a Nineties dance-club performance. Like other forms of entertainment in the theaters and restaurants along Calle Ocho, part of its attraction is nostalgia -- the performers offer audience members both the old-time glamour of Latin nightclub divas and large doses of evergreen ethnic humor.

Acting as unofficial mistresses of ceremonies, Mariloly and Julie provide comic relief to accompany the four other transvestites' more serious musical interpretations. Appearing on alternating weekends, Mariloly and Julie portray kitsch characters, parodying the stereotype of a lower-class Cuban woman with loose lips and a paunch under her tight cocktail dress.

Julie, whose given name is Jorge Cordero, dances to salsa music and lip-synchs to broken records, swishing about the stage in frayed clearance-sale dresses. She reels off ribald jokes about Cuba, tells self-depreciating stories ("Most transvestites use tape to keep their masculinity out of the way -- all I need is a Band-Aid"), and periodically takes one of her foam breasts out of her dress to scratch an itch.

Slightly more sophisticated is Mariloly, a consummate vaudevillian whose repertoire lately centers on the misadventures of balseros in Miami. With a face like a film noir henchman and a marvelously throaty Marlene Dietrich-like voice, she swaggers back and forth on Rockette legs in a fringed flapper dress, bantering with the men in the audience. Mariloly is also well known in Little Havana as a male actor named Danilo Dominguez, who performed zarzuela -- Spanish folkloric opera -- before debuting in that very first Midnight Follies show almost a decade ago.

Debbie, Erika, China, and Paloma embody the kind of divas who are traditional icons of Latin culture. None of them chooses to imitate any particular star but rather creates composite characters, lip-synching to different singers whose voices fit their personalities and body types. Rocio Jurado, Sara Montiel, and Maggie Carles are favorites, and Mariloly recently has taken on Albita Rodriguez; additionally, Erika performs the occasional English number sung by Marilyn Monroe or Ella Fitzgerald. While their staging is certainly dramatic, it is not any more so than other forms of popular Latin entertainment, and their passionate affectations are merely as exaggerated as the female singers they emulate.

They seem to take themselves seriously, and so does the audience. While some people come to see Midnight Follies out of curiosity or simply because they enjoy drag, others -- particularly the Cuban audience members of more advanced years -- simply want to see good old-fashioned entertainment. They may not be comfortable at Gloria Estefan's stadium concerts or be able to pay the cover charges and drink minimums at Miami's top Latin nightclubs, but they can afford to buy a $15 ticket to the Midnight Follies, then settle in for two hours of singing, dancing, and comedy.

"Everything revolves around fantasy," explains Pedro Herrera, the show's artistic director. "There's nothing sad, nothing exaggerated. We're doing something that gives this a level of normalcy. This show is about good music and pretty clothes. There's nothing profound here; the songs are love songs, no protest songs and nothing political. That's the way the audience likes it. This is not a show for snobs or for musical erudites or for symphony supporters or for ballet lovers. It's reliable entertainment at a reasonable price for people who want to have a good time and a pleasant experience that is pleasing to the eye."

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