Leguizamo show at Berkeley Rep yanks crowd to its feet
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.”
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.
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.