Regional Reviews: San Diego
Inspired, Mr. Leguizamo has said, by musicals that push the envelope, such as Spamalot or The Book of Mormon, Kiss My Aztec! provides a zany take on colonialism from the point of view of the colonized. If you're willing to check your privilege, you will probably enjoy the mix of traditional characters from Latinx literature, Shakespearean language, joyous songs whose lyrics may well offend, and, naturally, reminders of the politics of the current U. S. administration.
When the "White People on Boats" (the opening number) come calling on the 16th century Aztecs, they're not immigrants looking to escape oppression and infuse their adopted country with fresh energy and ideas, as in Hamilton. Rather, they want to take over. The Aztecs have not only built a wall to keep them out, they've deployed warriors and a shaman (Maria-Christina Oliveras) whose powers come from spirit forces that indicate their presence through changes of color. Among the would-be warriors is Columbina (Yani Marin), who is being told that she can't fight because she is a woman. There's also a trickster named Pepe (Joél Pérez) who entertains with sock puppets named Machu and Picchu and who would rather not become a warrior at all.
Now, the Conquistadores are not all that bright, and, well, they have problems. The Viceroy's daughter Pilar (Desireé Rodriguez), by the beginning of act two, has developed a taste for "Dark Meat." Two others are in a secret gay relationship, where they perform a "Tango in the Closet." And the white guys have a "fixer" named Pierre Pierrot (Richard Henry Ruiz), who eventually ends up in drag. (Given that we are talking intersectionality here, I'm not so sure the gay jokes are being told from the point of view of the oppressed.)
Continuing the honesty, the best part of the show is the songs. Benjamin Velez's music is a rich mix of styles. The melodies please the ear and energize the action. The lyrics, by David Kamp, Mr. Velez, and Mr. Leguizamo, are more of a mixed bag, and if you were to bring your ten-year-old to the show you might want to cover the child's ears sometimes. On the other hand, the child probably has heard it all before, and it might be the old white guy you brought who needs ear covering.
Tony Taccone, artistic director at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, does double duty as co-author of the book (with Mr. Leguizamo) and director. Mr. Leguizamo has credited Mr. Taccone as bringing some structure and sanity to the story, and I'll take him at his word. As director, he brings polish and good humor to the proceedings. The characters are types, but he succeeds in making the types lighthearted. The three principals, Ms. Marin, Ms. Oliveras, and Mr. Pérez, are all audience-pleasers.
Taccone is not helped that much by the creative team's work, particularly Clint Ramos' mess of a scenic design and his costume design that ranges from delightfully outrageous to "what were they thinking?"
La Jolla Playhouse audiences are seeing the second version of this co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Both companies have been a creative home to Mr. Leguizamo, and there seems to be have been some improvements made between the close in Berkeley and the opening in San Diego. I imagine things will continue to be worked on following this run. San Diego audiences have a chance to see a work that is still in development, and there is often fun involved in seeing something that will be revised for the better. One can only hope.
Kiss My Aztec! runs through October 13, 2019, at La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla CA. Performance times are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8p.m.; Sundays at 7p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2p.m. For tickets and information, call 858-550-1010 or visit lajollaplayhouse.org.
Cast members also include Angelica Beliard, Chad Carstarphen, KC De La Cruz, Zachary Infante, Jesús E. Martínez, and Al Rodrigo. Creative team members also include Maija García (choreographer), David Gardos (music supervisor), Simon Hale (orchestrator), Alexander V. Nichols (lighting designer), Jessica Paz (sound designer), Rachel Geier (wig designer), and Madeleine Oldham (dramaturg).