[Reprinted from The Journal Inquirer, May 27, 2022]
Tony- and Emmy-winning actor/playwright John Leguizamo will return to Hartford Stage with a new musical comedy making its East Coast debut, “Kiss My Aztec!” Previews start Wednesday.
The play opens June 10 and runs through June 26.
“It’s about the birth of Latin man, because the conquest was the birth of Latin man, the mixed races of what we Latin people are,” Leguizamo said in a recent interview.
Based on a screenplay by Leguizamo and Stephen Chbosky, “Kiss My Aztec!” follows a handful of rebels who continue to fight against Spain during their conquest of the Aztecs during the 16th century and their hope of reversing the conquest.
It was more than 10 years ago when Leguizamo was last at Hartford Stage, performing “Ghetto Klown.”
He will not be seen on stage, though. Leguizamo co-wrote the book with director Tony Taccone, and co-wrote the lyrics with David Kamp and Benjarmin Velez. Velez also wrote the music.
Leguizamo said he first started working on “Kiss My Aztec!” about seven years ago.
“Kiss My Aztec!”
WHAT: Irreverant musical loosely based on Latin American
WHERE: Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford.
WHEN: Previews begin Wednesday; opens June 10 and runs through June 26.
“I did it as a movie, but it’s so hard to sell Latin content,” he said. “Theater has always been a friendlier and less exclusive place.”
Leguizamo has successfully parlayed the friendlier theater environment with four one-man shows that have gone to Broadway, most recently “Latin History for Morons” which ran from November 2017 to February 2018. He also starred in a 2008 production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.”
“I was always able to do my shows on Broadway,” he said. “Artists have always done their projects intact.”
He said he wants people to both laugh and to think about the ramifications of what Spanish conquistadors did in destroying the Aztec civilization.
“The message is we’re better together,” he said. “We’re stronger together. The conquest was a dark horrible time in Latin history, but we survived it and that’s the beauty of it. We’re the only people whose religion, culture, and language was destroyed completely and we’re still here.”
After having readings at the Public and Atlantic theaters in New York City, Leguizamo said, “Kiss My Aztec!” had its first staging at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in California, receiving great reviews.
For its East Coast premiere, he chose Hartford Stage because of how well past productions he’d been involved with were received by the local Latin audience.
Also, like recent musicals such as “Anastasia” and the Tony Award-winning “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” he said he hopes “Kiss My Aztec!” will jump to Broadway.
“Hartford (Stage) is one of the most important theaters in New England for going to Broadway,” he said.
“They’re going to love this show,” he said of the Hartford Stage audience. “The music is killer. Valez did a great job.”
Leguizamo called director Taccone “a masterful storyteller” with “incredible staging gifts.”
Valez’s score for “Kiss My Aztec!” is a eclectic mix of Latin music mixed with gospel, hip-hop, funk, and rock, Leguizamo said.
“It’s what you would hear at one of my house parties,” he said. “It’s all in the Latin lexicon of music. We have so many varied styles.”
The musical styles represent the different cultures presented, he said, with the Spaniards being predominantly flamenco and paso doble music and the rebels, hip-hop beatbox, and reggaeton.
The characters are also represented in their language, he said with the Spaniards speaking a heightened Elizabethan English while the Atzecs speak a street slang style Elizabethan patois.
The story’s two central characters are Pepe, played by Joel Perez, and Colombina, played by Krystina Alabado.
“Pepe is the clown of the rebels, the entertainer,” Leguizamo said. “They think his craft isn’t useful for change. Colombina, is daughter of the black jaguar and wants to be a rebel and fight, while her father wants her to be doing feminine things. The two grow up together. Pepe is an orphan and Colombina lost her mother to the conquest.”
The two go on a revenge-driven quest to take down the fort of the Spanish viceroy to return the land back to the Aztecs.
“The actors, I’ve been working with them in workshops for seven years,” Leguizamo said. “The breadth and depth of Latin talent is incredible.
“I think the music is so innovative and so beautifully executed,” he said. “People are going to laugh. They’re going to be moved. We need to laugh and we need to heal and understand that we have to compromise and work with each other.”
Melia Bensussen, artistic director of Hartford Stage, said “Kiss My Aztec!” is her favorite kind of show.
“It’s so funny,” she said. “It’s so entertaining. It’s dealing with a substantial part of history, the conquista of Latin America. John is so smart and has such a gift of mixing the high and the low brow. He’s taking real information, but sending it up so artfully, so wittily. I’m so thrilled we’re ending the season with this.”
She said “Kiss My Aztec!” couldn’t be a better fit for Hartford Stage and the local community.
“It literally sings to our audience and it’s a pre-Broadway experience,” she said, pointing to the production’s ambition to open on Broadway. “It’s a show that will speak to our city, our region, and our audience that we hope to cultivate more of.”