Review: Berkeley Rep’s witty and sharply irreverent ‘Kiss My Aztec!’ conquers the stage

AZ3_lr
The clown Pepe (Joel Pérez) is more interested in his sock puppets Machu and Picchu than battling conquistadors in the world premiere of “Kiss My Aztec,” running through July 14th. (Kevin Berne photo)

One of the most hilarious moments in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of “Kiss My Aztec!” takes place in the opening number. In a world where the Aztecs were conquered by those vicious Spanish conquistadors, the opening number doesn’t just fit into this play but applies to many other battles.

White people in boats. Those damn colonizing white people in boats heading towards all us brown folk. From the navigation-challenged Christopher Columbus to the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, the history of white people landing on shores rarely if ever ends well for the inhabitants.

But this time, it’s a whole lot different. Those who will defend the land are armed with spears, sock puppets named Machu and Picchu, leather and showtunes. In addition, they have plenty of wack-ass Elizabethan syntax and don’t hesitate to dig into its use. And the results are an explosion of hilarity and knowledge.

“Kiss My Aztec!,” written by John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone, is about as wild and crazy as you would expect. Leguizamo, who has delved deep into Latinx history for his last show that premiered at Berkeley Rep, “Latin History for Morons,” is here to share a more specific time in history, one that looks at the dynamics of the Conquest.

There is a showdown going down underneath the moon of many colors. This battle to protect their home and overthrow the Spanish citadel is led by the strong leader of the Aztecs, Jaguar Negro (a phenomenal Chad Carstarphen). Under his tutelage, the troops are ready to battle, including his fiery daughter Colombina (a dazzling, hard-working Yani Marin). There is another not as primed to throw chingasos with the Spaniards, and that is buffoon master Pepe (fantastic talent Joel Pérez), he of the big, fluffy Napoleon Dynamite hair.

Pushing forward from the side of the bad guys and their desire to wipe out those pesky, bloodthirsty Aztecs is Viceroy Rodrigo (Restoration-like fop Al Rodrigo), yet some of his most closely connected folks are dealing with their own issues. His son Fernando (boyish charmer Zachary Infante) agonizes to express his sexuality with his secret lover Reymundo (Carstarphen).

In addition, Rodrigo’s sister Pilar (big and bold Desiree Rodriguez) has some forbidden fruit she also wants to try and expresses it very succinctly in the hilarious number “Dark Meat.”

AZ4_lr
Colombina (Yani Marin) is not interested in standing on the sidelines of the battle. (Kevin Berne photo)

If you have any knowledge of Leguizamo’s works, you’ll certainly recognize plenty of touchstones – the oft-referenced platano maduro, words like chankleta and panfleta and other fun little moments, such as when astrologer Walter Mercado and his big blonde locks rolls on by.

While there were moments where jokes were pushed too hard and fell flat, the strength of the show is the stage becomes quite the playground of the creative team. You can clearly feel the fun of the text as well as the unbridled joy of Taccone’s dominant direction that does a lot to enhance Leguizamo’s mind that lives through the very strong cast. The playground exists on a big, beautiful scenic design by Clint Ramos, who also designed fantastic costumes that are awash in detail.

While the show certainly has many fine staging and textual details, the fresh, witty and irreverent music is what takes the cake. In addition to the opening number, the compositions of Benjamin Velez and the lyrics of Velez, Leguizamo and David Kamp have some serious kick, utilizing every type of the hugely varied Latinx drama. It’s what you would come to expect from Leguizamo, who incorporates music and dance in every one of his shows. Latin sounds such as salsa, merengue, boogaloo, hip hop and some smokin’ gospel keeps the tunes varied and fresh. Credit music director Kenji Higashihama for a band that not only shreds, but also has some great moments of play with the cast.

Numbers like “Punk Ass Geek A” and “Make the Impossible Possible” dive right into some stunning stuff, and Maija Garcia is given a rich repertoire of musical styles to work with as choreographer. Big Broadway makes an appearance, with the act one closing number having a “Les Miserables,” “One Day More” feel, with a name that tells a more accurate story – “Shit’s About to Go Down.”

“Kiss My Aztec!” will not be everybody’s choice. It can be crude, sophomoric and in your face. But at the same time, the musical’s power is that it doesn’t focus on pleasing anyone with heightened sensibilities. It tells its story, unabashedly and with delicious verve.

With its fantastically fresh score and bold through line, the show has primed itself on the cusp of becoming the next great American musical full of artistic, cultural agency. And if the songs that end each act are true, then you know shit’s about to go down because the world is gonna get a whole lot browner.

Thankfully, for a change, there is nothing a bunch of white people in boats can do to stop it.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of “Kiss My Aztec!”
Book by John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone
Music by Benjamin Velez
Lyrics by David Kamp, Benjamin Velez, and John Leguizamo
Based on an original screenplay written by John Leguizamo and Stephen Chbosky
Choreographed by Maija García
Directed by Tony Taccone
The Word: A show loaded with fresh irreverence and fantastic music, priming itself as the next great American musical
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
The Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Through July 14th
Tickets range from $40 – $115
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s