‘Dance’ could launch Latin star’s screen career

GOOD MORNING: “He’s the next Banderas,” said Vanessa Williams as she and her leading man, Chayanne, were about to swing into a torrid salsa dance number for Mandalay-Sony’s “Shut Up and Dance” Thursday morning at the Hacienda Real dance club at 9th and Hill. With the success of Australia’s “Strictly Ballroom,” Japan’s “Shall We Dance?” and the Latin music-themed biopic, “Selena” (coincidentally screening around the corner at the Orpheum), the “Shut Up” filmmakers feel confident the public is ready for their rhythm and romance pic with these two torrid leads. Randa Haines, who directs and produces, is a salsa dancer. She met scripter Daryl Matthews at a salsa club four years ago and the idea for this film was born. Exec producer Ted Zachary and producer Shinya Egawa, who were both on the set, reminded that John Travolta broke out in “Saturday Night Fever,” Kevin Bacon scored in “Footloose,” Jennifer Beals in “Flashdance” and Patrick Swayze in “Dirty Dancing.” They feel the same will happen with newcomer Chayanne. The Puerto Rican-born singer-dancer plays a Cuban in the Texas-set story in which he and Williams make their romantic way to the national dance contest finals. Haines feels the audience will be with them all the way “Everyone has the desire to be a Fred Astaire or a Chita Rivera — for one night,” Haines said. … The assistant director loudspeaker’d instructions in English and Spanish to the company of dancers filling the dance floor. When he shouted “Playback,” Albita (Rodriguez), the Cuban-born singing star (she’s like a combination Madonna and Bette Midler!), and her band broke into the salsa beat of “Fiesta Pa Los Rumberos” and the snake-hipped, long-legged, bare-midriffed, sequined and spike-heeled ladies locked into their equally gyrating male dance partners. When Williams and Chayanne entered, they swung from one partner to another as the beat grew louder, more frenzied. Director Haines followed ’em on the floor with a post-card-size monitor while a Steadicam and hand-held camera captured the action. Even the operators — and Haines — were moving with the rhythm! The $40 million pic will move to Puerto Rico for a sequence doubling Cuba — but there’s no dance doubles needed for Williams and Chayanne — their movements are spectacularly sexy! Vanessa will also be seen this weekend as the enticing “Calypso” in “The Odyssey.” She will tour with Luther Vandross in September and has an album ready for release. The handsome Chayanne, already a Latin music idol, will surely add movie stardom following this outing. He will tour the U.S. with his song-and-dance extravaganza in time for the pic’s intended release for Valentine’s Day ’98.

IT WAS IRONIC THAT HBO was previewing Larry Gelbart’s “Weapons of Mass Distraction” Wednesday (at the Mann Festival with party following at the Gardens on Glendon) as the New Yorker magazine was also partying (at Spago) its “Annals of Communications” columnist Ken Auletta on publication of his “The Highwaymen: Warriors of the Information Superhighway.” The leads in Gelbart’s telefilm have been compared to Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner — and the two have been subjects of Auletta’s in the past and in the book as well. Auletta had not yet seen Gelbart’s HBO show but said he definitely will — as should anyone who is part of this biz or writes about it. “Distraction” debuts May 17. HBO president John Matoian, making the intro of Gelbart pre-screening, put it perfectly: “Larry constantly makes you think.” But even Gelbart admitted he is amazed to see the latest true life developments of the megamoguls imitating his art. Or is it vice versa? “You can’t keep up with headlines any more,” allowed Gelbart — who first wrote “Weapons” two years ago. He now heads to Toronto to produce, with son Gary Markowitz, Showtime’s “Fast Track” about stock car racing. Gelbart is not scripting. Keith Carradine stars in the 22-seg show. Among cast members at the “Mass Distraction” screening, Heidi Mark, former Playmate who could be another Marilyn Monroe. She was with fiance Vince Neil of Motley Crue (hair dyed bright red) to film a music video with guestar — Larry Flynt.

PRODUCER-PHILANTHROPIST Joe Kanter, in D.C. today at the National Press Club, is joined by Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) to announce the beginning of dialogue with the American public concerning the importance of health outcomes research by starting the “Common Language Project” through Kanter’s foundation. His goal “to cause people across America to ask the simple question — ‘What really works in health care?’ ” … Stephanie Liss, who received a Writers Guild Award for her Holocaust-themed telepic “Hidden in Silence,” bows her provocative play “The Vow” May 21 with a reading by Bruce Davison, Amy Aquino, Nicholas Guest and Pam Rack — it’s about two friends, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, raised as brothers and torn apart by the conflict. … Twelve production designers combined their talents to create plans to rebuild the tornado-destroyed city of Arkadelphia. Harry Thomason brought the model, built on a CBS Studio City stage, to Arkansas, where merchants were overjoyed with plans to return the town to its original Victorian period look.

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