Leguizamo show at Berkeley Rep yanks crowd to its feet

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★½

Pepe (in foreground, played by Joél Pérez) and Colombina (Yani Marin, on his left) are key characters in “Kiss My Aztec!” Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep Theatre.

The only thing missing from “Kiss My Aztec!” — the Berkeley Rep’s new John Leguizamo-penned musical comedy — is, well, Leguizamo’s physical presence.

Although he may be absent, his comic essence isn’t. Nor is his quest to bolster brown-skinned culture. One or the other, or both, pop up in nearly every scene.

In addition, “Aztec!” contains virtually everything else.

Latin boogaloo and merengue. Hip-hop and salsa. Tango and bossa nova. Gospel and funk.

Some of that potpourri is memorable, unusual in an era where audiences typically leave the theater unable to sing anythingthey’ve heard. Opening night, however, I heard folks humming several tunes at a post-show reception of the world premiere.

That same audience, incidentally, laughed throughout, and when the two-hour Tony Taccone-directed musical epic ended, literally leapt from its seats to give a standing ovation.

But “Aztec!” is beyond a cornucopia of melodies played well by a six-member onstage band and choreographed to the artistry of Maija García.

It’s rife with sexuality, both hetero and homo.

And — despite it confronting genocide and racism, gender inequality and homophobia — its comedy is like a lowbrow Mel Brooks creation except that a Latinx cultural mélange substitutes for Jewish schtick.

Take, for instance, a dueling scene straight out of “Hamilton” with hand puppets substituting for guns. Or a slap-athon a la The Three Stooges. Or parading a gigantic codpiece.

Some of the humor — because the plot centers on an Aztec rebellion in Mesoamerica against oppressive Spanish conquistadors — stems from the weird and funny juxtaposition of modern street slang with mock early-1500s’ Elizabethan “eth” suffixes tacked onto verbs, as in “spoon-eth.”

Or it emanates from ensemble efforts on a song deriding the invaders who gave locals syphilis and other STDs: “Keep it in your pants — and dance.”

Flaws?

I believe “Aztec!” — which clearly has Broadway in its sights — needs 15 minutes of paring; a refocusing of words belted out by Pilar, the viceroy’s daughter (which, though sung with oomph and raw sexuality, frequently aren’t discernible); and judicious deletion of excessive f-bombs and other vulgarities.

Lyrics, by the way, excel in cleverness and rely on internal rhymes that greatly amuse me.

Opening and closing numbers of each act are the best tunes. Especially “White People on Boats,” which starts the farce with an 11-member ensemble rock ‘n’ rollicking — after stagehands set the mood before the curtain by punching two big red balls into the seats, expecting theatergoers to playfully keep them aloft.

“Dark Meat” begins Act II with whimsically carnal satire, and an anthem-like ending underscores the show’s major theme: The world is getting browner.

The two key roles are owned by Joél Pérez as Pepe, a jester seeking to lose his virginity, and Yani Marin as Colombina, a warrior whose black-leather pants couldn’t get any tighter and who labels herself “a woman who likes to do what a man do.”

Both acquit themselves well.

Also noteworthy: Chad Carstarphen as El Jaguar Negro, Colombina’s father and leader of the rebels; Zachary Infante as Fernando, the viceroy’s son who’s light in his footwear; Marie-Christina Oliveras as Tolima, a witch; and Richard Henry Ruiz as Pierre Pierrot, a coke-snorting “fixer.”

All cavort on a set designed by Clint Ramos — also credited with the colorful (and sometimes intentionally mismatched) costumes — that’s charmingly simple.

And practical.

Scaffolding and stairs. With backdrops and shimmering gold curtains that descend from the ceiling. And with an homage to Aztec culture that includes a face with tongue sticking out (reminiscent of the Rolling Stones album cover).

Taccone, the company’s artist director who with this production ends a 22-year run with the Rep, met Tony/Emmy Award-winner Leguizamo 10 years ago and, he writes in the Rep magazine, “immediately fell in love with John’s rapacious intellect and take-no-prisoners sense of humor.”

Now they’ve co-written “Aztec!” — not their first collaboration. They’d joined forces on “Latin History for Morons,” Leguizamo’s one-man show that premiered in Berkeley in 2016 and went on to Broadway.

It was, I wrote, “like watching a frenzied Latino burst a metaphoric piñata that promptly spills out 900 historical facts. And triggers 450 belly laughs per capita.”

“Aztec!” amps everything up even more, like the rat-a-tat-tat of a Gatling gun’s bullets hitting everything within range.

One target is Donald Trump. Although he’s not mentioned by name, his policies are consistently parodied, as when “illegal immigrants” crossing the border are cited.

A few of the topical references may need to be changed in future productions. Ditto allusions to Berkeley intersections.

“Kiss My Aztec!” — once titled “Pain in the Aztec” — was originally intended to be a straight play for Leguizamo. But when it became a musical, the actor/comedian/playwright bowed out (because, he claims, he can’t stay on key).

He did add some lyrics, though, with David Kamp — and with Benjamin Velez, who composed the music.

Susan Medak, the Rep’s managing director, calls the show “a total bacchanal, a musical send-up of myth, majesty and mayhem.”

I thinketh she speaketh the truth — right, tan bro?

“Kiss My Aztec!”plays at theBerkeley Repertory Theatre‘s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, through July 14. Night performances, 7 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Tickets: $28 to $115, subject to change. Information: 510-647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →