On Sunday night two, count ‘em two, John Leguizamo shows opened in Southern California. We in LA are likely aware of his well-publicized one-man show Latin American History for Morons downtown. San Diegans get the larger-scale Kiss my Aztec at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Leguizamo co-wrote the Aztec book with the show’s director, Tony Taccone, and contributed to the lyrics, along with lyricist David Kamp and music writer/arranger Benjamin Velez. It’s a wild, comic fiesta, melding history and current events in a spectacle of song, dance, theatrics…and even some puppetry.
Aztec tells a complex tale of conquest and resistance in a way that’s fun and easy to follow. The songs contribute mightily to the action, with a variety of musical styles and a featured group of six musicians. The brilliant lyrics hit not a single false rhyme. Rhyming “Quetzalcoatl” with “full-throttle”? “Buyin’” and “Mayan”? Genius.
The musical comedy made its world premiere just a couple of months ago at Berkeley Repertory Theatre; its esteemed artistic director Taccone’s swan song after 22 years at the helm.
Aztec takes place in 16th-century Mexico and features a Spanish viceroy (Al Rodrigo), a French fixer named Pierre Pierrot (Richard Henry Ruiz), a group of Aztec resisters led by the fierce Columbina (Yani Marin), a puppet-wielding clown named Pepe (Joel Perez) and the viceroy’s randy daughter Pilar (Desiree Rodriguez). It’s Spamalot meets El Grande de Coca-Cola (a groundbreaking bilingual show from the ‘70s about a traveling Mexican variety show), with nods to Princess Bride, Avenue Q, Hamilton and tons more — yet it’s completely original.
Fast-paced witticisms meld wordplay from ancient (“Everybody Needeth a Fixer”) to modern (“Punk-Ass Geek-a”). Sight gags keep the audience laughing while the story moves forward and points get made. It’s a lot of moving parts and a joy to watch the gears mesh. From the opening song about colonialism (“White People on Boats”) we are living la vida Mesoamericana.
Some shows start strong but lose steam. Not Kiss My Aztec! The second act picks up the pace, amps up the spectacle, and brings it all home with an ending number that could be the theme song for our current political climate. (It’s called simply “Finale,” so as not to give away its hysterical and accurate message.)
The team behind Kiss My Aztec has created a laugh-out-loud extravaganza. Choreography (Maija Garcia) and scenic and costume design (Clint Ramos) are stellar. The cast, all people of color, are Broadway-ready, with mad talent and skills. Most play multiple roles and brilliantly differentiate their unique characters.
At two hours and 45 minutes, the show could use a trim in its first act. There’s plenty of cursing in two languages, and a political point of view with ties to today’s resistance, so Aztec is not for the easily offended. But those who like their theater fast and funny should start planning a weekend in beautiful La Jolla.
Kiss My Aztec runs through Oct. 13 at the La Jolla Playhouse. For more information and tickets, click here. Latin History for Morons runs through Oct. 20 at the Ahmanson. For more information and tickets, click here.