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REVIEW: Kiss My Aztec! — La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla

La Jolla Playhouse has seen its share of grandeur, glory, shtick and spoof during its 72-year history, but literally nothing has come along as sassy, as irreverent and as down-in-your-face hilarious as the musical comedy on stage right now.

Cheekily called, “Kiss My Aztec!, this rollicking, take-no-prisoners political spoof, written with inspiration from the Book of Mormon, Young Frankenstein and Spamalot while limelighting the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in the 16th century, could only spring from the clever and culturally savvy mind of movie actor John Leguizamo.

Plus, you know you’re in for a real treat when three of the cast members start tossing large beach balls into the audience for a crazy bounce game right before the show begins.

While the man who sang "Nature Boy" and other tunes in the movie musical "Moulin Rouge" is staying behind the scenes this time, though, he doesn't seem to mind letting the cast of "Kiss My Aztec!" take the stage in his stead. The musical comedy combines Latin boogaloo, hip-hop, salsa, gospel, funk, and merengue to create a unique and energetic portrayal.

"Oh no, I love it!," Leguizamo says, talking by phone from L.A. "Seeing these talented performers who are quadruple threats — they act, they dance, they sing their rear ends off, and they're funny. Not many people can do those four things — I certainly can't! I don't even know how those people exist on this Earth. They're almost saintly."

Saintly, maybe. Some of the characters they play in the show, though, are a different story.

"Kiss My Aztec!" is a satirical twist on a heavy chapter from history: The conquest and eventual annihilation by 16th-century Spanish invaders of the indigenous Aztec civilization, which thrived for more than 200 years in what is now Central Mexico.

The story centers on a group of ragtag Aztecs leading the resistance against the Spanish (mostly without management skills). Empowered by a prophecy promising a new leader called the “Great Brown Hope,” and led by the unlikely duo of a precociously fierce female warrior/rapper, named Colombina, and Pepe, a conscientious objector clown, they plot to overthrow their Spanish oppressors. Along the way they collide with an evil Viceroy’s dysfunctional family, his inbred, overheated, millennial daughter, a foppish French “fixer,” and the wannabe pop star nephew of the King of Spain.

With music played by a live on-stage band of eight and composed by Benjamin Velez with lyrics by David Kamp, Velez and Leguizamo (his previous hit show “Latin History For Morons” was a huge smash on Broadway and can now be seen on Netflix), and with excellent dancing choreographed by Maija García, the two and a half hour show with one intermission flies by before you know it.

The action starts with a contemporary set that depicts a barrio with buildings covered in graffiti. A gentle and awkward puppeteer Pepe (Joél Pérez) falls in love with an aggressive take-charger Colombina (Yani Marin) who leads him around from one adventure to another. The story shifts back to the 16th century with a recounting of the history of the the Aztec nation. With lyrics that switch from rap to recitative to ballads, the narrator starts telling everyone that while Europe was just developing, the Aztecs were building pyramids and discovered chocolate. And what did the Spanish contribute? — tapas.

An ensemble of 10 sings “White People on Boats,” telling of the diseases, the rapes and devastation that the Spanish brought. Then the set changes by bringing in a red velvet throne chair with the Spanish Viceroy Rodrigo (Al Rodrigo) who instructs his fey son Fernando (Zachary Infante) that he has to arrange a political marriage of convenience between his daughter Pilar and Sebastian who conveniently has his standing army nearby.

The nymphomaniacal Pilar (Desireé Rodriguez) has other ideas, of course, as she is smitten by Pepe (Joél Pérez), and she refuses Sebastien’s (Infante again) hand. It is the coke-addict Pierre (Richard Henry Ruiz) who is to make the match possible. He’s the “fixer.” Pillar’s maid Tolima (Maria-Christiana Oliveras) tries to perform her magic according to the ancient Aztec rituals. There are songs and dances with three cardinals who are the Inquisitors in long red robes and a gospel choir of believers. This play spares no one — gays, born-agains, the church, royalists, even mesa-American witches.

With lots of plot twists and devices, the two time periods, the present and the 16th century coalesce and and the finale, like in so many happy musical comedies, ends with weddings of two couples and much merriment to the song and dance when they sing “The World is Getting Browner.” There are so many funny moments in this satirical musical thanks to the entire crew, the excellent actors, the sets and costumes (Clint Ramos), and hysterical props (lots of cod pieces) that “Kiss My Aztec!” has a very bright future.

Aside from the book created by Leguizamo ((Playhouse’s Page To Stage productions of “Latin History for Morons” and “Diary of a Madman,” “Romeo + Juliet,” “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” The “John Wick” series) and Taccone, they also count on a remarkable creative team including Benjamin Velez (music, lyrics, arranger), David Kamp (lyrics), Simon Hale (orchestrator), David Gardos (music supervisor), and Maija García (choreography). Leguizamo wrote the book to the piece with Tony Taccone (“Latin History for Morons,” “Zorro in Hell”), who is directing "Kiss My Aztec!" and recently retired as the longtime artistic chief of Berkeley Rep.

The cast features Angelica Beliard (Ensemble), Chad Carstarphen (El Jaguar Negro/ Reymundo), KC De La Cruz (Ensemble), Zachary Infante (Fernando/Sebastian), Yani Marin (Colombina), Jesús E. Martínez (Captain Soldier), Maria-Christina Oliveras (Tolima), Joél Pérez (Pepe), Al Rodrigo (Rodrigo), Desireé Rodriguez (Pilar) and Richard Henry Ruiz (Pierre Pierrot).

Maija García, Choreographer; David Gardos, Music Supervisor; Simon Hale, Orchestrator; Clint Ramos (“Tallest Tree in the Forest,” “Ruined,” “Most Wanted”), Scenic and Costume Designer; Alexander V. Nichols (“The Last Tiger in Haiti”), Lighting Designer; Jessica Paz, Sound Designer; Rachel Geier, Wig Designer; Wilson Torres, Additional Percussion Arrangements; Madeleine Oldham, Dramaturg; Amy Potozkin, CSA and Tara Rubin Casting – Xavier Rubiano, CSA, Casting; Megan McClintock, Stage Manager.

La Jolla Playhouse is a place where artists and audiences come together to create what’s new and next in the American theatre, from Tony-Award-winning productions to imaginative programs for younger audiences, to interactive experiences outside their theatre walls. Founded in 1947 by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer, the Playhouse is currently led by Tony Award Winner Christopher Ashley, the Rich Family Artistic Director of La Jolla Playhouse, and Managing Director Debby Buchholz.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

The Show Report



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