Theater Review: KISS MY AZTEC (La Jolla Playhouse)

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by Milo Shapiro on September 17, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


For fans of John Leguizamo, the notion of a full-length musical written by him is a thrilling draw. Whether a fan from his numerous edgy one-man Broadway shows like Ghetto Klown and Latin History for Morons, or his dramatic roles in Carlito’s Way and ER, or his comedic flair in drag as Chi-Chi in To Wong Foo, there’s a lot to appreciate about the man’s talent — on stage and off. In this case, his talent is purely offstage, since the Columbia-born Leguizamo has not cast himself in his first musical — co-written with director Tony Taccone of Berkeley Rep, which co-produced.

Based on a screenplay by Leguizamo and Stephen Chbosky, Kiss My Aztec! begins during the Aztec empire as a battle rages to protect the tribe from the Spaniards (a la the song “White People On Boats”).  If you’re hoping for a history lesson here, you’re out of luck. That’s pretty much the end of the historical learning as everything beyond that is pure fiction and highly farcical, with many an allusion to modern politics (note to Republicans: prepare to briefly clench a few body parts).

Our heroine Columbina (Yani Marin) is a real tough cookie and wants to battle the Spaniards along with the men. Her father, who is the battle chief (Chad Carstarphen), commands her back to traditional women’s work. Meanwhile, soft-spoken puppet-loving Pepe (Joél Pérez) wants nothing to do with his impending battlefield duties. His two sole desires are to be an entertainer and, perhaps even greater, to be with Columbina in an unlikely pairing.

On the other side of the war, we get to know a variety of egotistical Spaniards. Their family dynamics play into their motives for being in the war and, on the side, conquering each other as much as the Aztecs. With a convoluted plan by Columbina and Pepe to invade the Spanish household and with the inclusion of a witch’s spells (did I mention this was farcical fiction?), the wild plot is underway.

The music may start out a bit hip-hop for the liking of some of older attendees, but fear not. Benjamin Velez’s varied musical arrangements span from soul and tango to disco and bossa nova. Even gospel gets its moment in the sun.

The dialogue plays with being Shakespearean to add drama, employing many a “thee” and “though” and adding “eth” to lots of words — often playfully poor, as in, “They’re walkething into a trap!” But Shakespeare-phobes need not worry about following this very contemporary show. If anything, more words are lost on some of the audience when occasional phrases in Spanish are added for effect.

Maija Garcia’s choreography fills the energy of the big La Jolla Playhouse stage, especially in accompaniment to Clint Ramos’s grand costuming and some delightful wiggery by Rachel Geier. Production value is high and the pacing is tight under Taccone’s direction. Leguizamo deserves credit for endeavoring to create a big musical production that is focused on, cast with, and accessible to the Latinx community, although the goofiness factor may have some saying, “If I didn’t know this was written by a Latino, I might have thought it was a bit mocking…” While all seems to be written in good fun, this Caucasian reviewer cannot fairly comment on where that border would be for every person of color.

In the end, this program is hard to either universally recommend or ward you off from. It’s really a question of your tolerance for silliness. If you’re one who tends to roll your eyes while those around you are laughing, perhaps this won’t be for you. But if the big kid in you is up for the clowniness that these folks do so well, come out for the fun.

photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep

Kiss My Aztec
La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Drive (San Diego)
Tues & Wed at 7:30; Thurs & Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on Oct 13, 2019
for tickets, call ­858.550.1010 or visit La Jolla Playhouse

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