The guy in the candle suit belted out his tune as human forks and knives cut a mean rug. The bookish Beauty wooed the crowd with her dreamy songs, falling in love with the Beast despite his unsightly back hair. Everything about this musical looked very much like Disney's Broadway production of "Beauty and the Beast."

But there was something different, too. It could be that guy in the candle suit, who wasn't performing "Be Our Guest" but the Spanish version, "Nuestro Huesped Sea Usted." Then there's the fact that this is all taking place closer to Antarctica than to Times Square.

"We're saving South Americans the trip to Broadway," said Daniel Grinbank, president of CIE-R&P, the Argentine company that bought licensing rights from Disney to stage "Beauty and the Beast." Though the musical employs Argentine actors, it was directed and arranged by the same Disney team that designed the original. "We're giving it to the people here, in their own language, but with all the frills."

The launching here of Disney's megabuck show, along with a host of other recent or soon-to-open productions, is part of a calculated attempt to turn Tangotown into Broadway South.

This metropolis of grand architecture and European airs has long laid claim to the title of South America's culture capital, but it is now reaching for something more precise--to be the most important theater center this side of the equator, a Spanish-language alternative for affluent South Americans who now make pilgrimages to New York's theater district or London's West End.

Many contend that this says a lot about the increasing influence of U.S. and British culture in the non-English-speaking world. Indeed, lately the marquees of Avenida Corrientes, "the Broadway of Buenos Aires," are startlingly similar to the ones in New York and London. "Closer," Patrick Marber's British play about impersonal relationships in the era of the Internet, opened in Buenos Aires only one week after its New York debut. The Spanish-language versions of Yasmina Reza's "Art," and multimillion-dollar stagings of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Man of La Mancha" are among the recent attractions here.

In addition, Argentine theater entrepreneurs have bought the rights and are in pre-production phases of "Rent," "Chicago," "My Fair Lady" and "Les Miserables," among others.

"Not every play from the United States or England will sell here, but there are those with timely themes that have become so well known that people are already talking about them before they even arrive in B.A.," said Federico Gonzalez del Pino, co-director of F&F Artist Agents, Buenos Aires' leading theatrical agents.

While that says a lot about the growing demand for U.S. plays and musicals, as well as the power of a big promotions budget, it also says a lot about the Argentines, said Alejandra Boero, a noted stage actress, director and theater owner.

"Unfortunately, the Argentines have always had an identity problem--we have always worshiped anything that came from abroad, and thought it better than anything we had at home," Boero said. "That's one of the negative sides of all this. Local plays and playwrights are being lost in the glitz and the spending for these big imported productions."

To appeal to Latin showgoers who typically flock to Broadway, the plays here are often being "interpreted" rather than merely translated. In "Closer," for example, the artistic director and actors believed Latin Americans simply would not relate to the characters as Marber originally intended.

"We are playing the roles differently than they are in New York--slightly less impersonal, with more emotion shared between the characters," said Jorge Marrale, a well-known Argentine actor who plays one of the leads. "People here simply would not accept that lovers could treat each other that indifferently."

Buenos Aires has stood for decades as the capital of the Latin stage. By the late 1960s and early '70s, the city had become known for its home-grown, smaller-budget productions of international successes including "Hello, Dolly!," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"--even "Hair."

But a series of brutal military dictatorships destroyed much of the country's artistic expression, not to mention its economy. Indeed, in the '70s state-sponsored terrorism and religious extremists were behind several bombings of local theaters--one bomb exploded after a controversial staging of "Jesus Christ Superstar," and another after a revue lampooning a military figure.

"Evita," the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical loosely based on the life of former Argentine first lady Eva Peron, was banned--and has still never been staged here, though by now it's more from lack of interest (the 1997 Madonna movie version did play here, but with only moderate success).

But that has begun to change. The theater scene has been reinvigorated since democracy was restored in 1983, as previously taboo themes have reemerged on the stages here. But more importantly, spurred by the free market economic changes that have taken place during the 1990s, entrepreneurs here have been investing millions into Argentina's decaying theatrical icons. Avenida Corrientes is the scene of a great renaissance, as the massive National, Broadway, Opera and other theaters--with some containing as many as 1,800 seats--are being restored and/or reopened by wealthy businessmen with a big vision.

"Very simply--they want to build the Latin American theatrical equivalent to New York in Buenos Aires," said Susana Freire, theater critic for La Nacion newspaper. "Spanish-language theater in South America outside of Buenos Aires is still not very developed, and these businessmen believe people will fly here from all parts of [South America] to take in theater."

But the lingering question is whether productions like "Rent"--a very "American" musical that many believe may not translate here--will end up bringing in enough money to pay the rent, or even cover their hefty licensing fees.

Expensive productions also mean expensive ticket prices--and critics such as Freire are publicly questioning the economic projections of theater investors here. These critics say that Broadway-like prices, as high as $60 a seat, are unrealistic in a nation that is affluent by Latin American standards but nevertheless still a developing country.

To be sure, "Beauty and the Beast," while performing generally well, has not met its promoters' expectations. While the No. 1 theater event in Buenos Aires for the past several months, it has been pulling in roughly $170,000 a week and drawing about 6,500 spectators. In New York, the same work--more than five years into its run--is consistently pulling in $550,000 or so a week, with attendances exceeding 10,000.

The costs of putting on the production here are somewhat lower than in New York, but Grinbank, the producer, admits the show is not doing as well as he had hoped. He blamed most of the faltering ticket sales and heavy discounting of ticket prices on a deep recession that hit Argentina two months after "Beauty" opened. The recession was caused by the devaluation of the currency in Argentina's larger neighbor, Brazil, in January. But Grinbank remains bullish. "We had bad timing, but if we can still see relatively good results like this during a time of bad recession, I'm convinced this idea will work in the long run."

The show, he insists, will go on.

CAPTION: Argentine theater entrepreneurs are preparing productions of "Les Miserables," above, "Rent," "My Fair Lady" and others.

CAPTION: "Closer," with Leticia Bredice and Jorge Marrale, opened in Buenos Aires just a week after its New York debut.