There’s an old gag in the newspaper biz: Grizzled editor to cub reporter: “I just thought of this great headline. Go find a story to fit it!”
The title of Kiss My Aztec!, the new musical now at the La Jolla Playhouse, doesn’t rise to that level of ironic self-depreciation. It’s merely a cheeky pun. There is no actual kissing of Aztecs on the Mandell Weiss Theatre, just a lot of goofy frolic.
There are race, gender, dope, money and fart jokes galore. Endless salsa rhythms and lots of hip-hop. Tons of puns and wordplay: “Nobody wants to see your peepee, Pepe!” Loads of aged chestnuts: “How can a girl who has so much be so unhappy? Practice!”
Western Hemisphere history since 1492 is the subject. Guess who the villains are, backed by gunpowder and syphilis. The brown folks don’t stand a chance in the long haul, regardless of how noble and nimble they may be. But bite-sized bits of story, in accordance with the rules of melodrama, still are winnable. And that’s what’s going on here, in an atmosphere of sophomore-class follies: An attempt to make sociology and history sexy for all.
Sort of Mel Brooks with attitude.
We’ve seen this stuff many times before: The magic amulet. The ancient prophecy. The golden Priapus… Well, okay, that last one is new. Filled with potential and just flopping away in the middle of several scenes. Only problem is, the people in the show seem to forget about it. The first take is great, the second still a wowser. Thereafter, however, everybody on stage sort of ignores it (not the audience!), thus squelching a dandy running gag.
There are other elements fairly new to the templates. The young woman, petulant at her lack of power. The nerd who becomes the romantic hero. The mincing gay priests and princes. All of these suggest a lively determination to keep up with our times. Robust new clichés seem to be blooming everywhere.
Sources? Oh, boy. Plautus and commedia dell’ arte of course. Shakespeare’s knockabout side. Musical theatre, light and heavy; old movies and their old effects; and stand-up comedy. Puppets, of all things. (Quarreling sock characters named “Machu” and “Picchu.”) And, since this is a co-production with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it’s been in development for years, plenty of Bay Area influences: San Francisco Mime Troupe, Teatro Campesino, Blake Street Hawkeyes, Culture Clash and, really, “Beach Blanket Babylon.”
This is all a project of John Leguizamo, who first tried it some years back as a screenplay, and Tony Taccone, artistic director of the Berkeley Rep for three decades. The present version, with book by the partners, has music and arrangements by Benjamin Velez and lyrics by all three of them, plus others.
(In keeping with the vacuum technique of rounding up elements, somebody seems to have stumbled upon “How’d You Like to Spoon with Me”, a 1905 showtune written by Jerome Kern and Edward Laaka for the American run of the British show The Earl and the Girl. Angela Lansbury has a dandy version of the original on YouTube. The term itself – meaning roughly “silly in love” but here staggering under its load of innuendo – was tracked back by the OED at least to 1831. Nothing’s ever completely new, right?)
The best song in the show, by far, is the opening “White People on Boats,” which pretty well tells the whole story. There are just 11 players representing a cast of thousands an everybody gets a moment in the sun, which itself has a running gag of not quite turning red, but more magenta with hints of cabernet or some such.
Did I mention the olde English? Well, there’s plenty in the form of quaint “ye” and “thine” and “goeth,” which contrast harshly with the naughty street language that has the kids giggling. There is little to which these guys will not stoop for a laugh, which might as well be taken as a compliment.
Joel Perez plays Pepe, who gets to manipulate Machu and Picchu, wear the golden codpiece, end up with the girl andsing the show’s second-best song, “Punk-Ass Geek-A.” He’s kind of like a big Teddy Bear but don’t dare upstage him! “The girl,” to use a long-standing character code having nothing to do with empowerment (okay?), is a lean and energetic Yani Marin, channeling Laura Croft of Tomb-Raider fame as she fights bad guys with one hand and wrings the other in frustration over her second-class status. Desiree Rodriguez as the resident blonde virgin (uh huh…), strapped with no load of context, is free to just rear back and unleash the Andrew Lloyd Webber within.
Al Rodrigo probably teaches Evil Boss somewhere, so smoothly does he play one here. Zachary Infante as Evil Heir Apparent is saddled with a cumbersome gay-yearning aspect but gets compensation from a dandy soft-shoe number (“Tango in the Closet”) with the local Catholic Inquisitor, played with passionate relish by Chad Carstarphen, who also does duty in the heroic but less interesting role of rebel leader.
Really, the plot is less complicated than it sounds. And, sadly, less likely.
Maija Garcia’s choreography probably brings more to the basic flavor of the show than does Taccone’s staging. I suspect the director’s attention has focused more on what’s being said and done than how that works. Nothing much to say about the movement except it shows a keen awareness of techniques to help a dozen little brushes fill a big canvas.
That space, as Clint Ramos has designed in LJP tradition, is multi-level and packed with projection opportunities such as vast Toltec bas reliefs splashed with fluid graffiti shapes. Ramos also created the potpourri of costumes spreading in every direction outward from that gilded phallus, and Alexander V. Nichols is the creator of the jagged, rousing light design.
The six musicians, almost too busy doubling to grab their own moment of street swagger, provide a comfortable ride for the show’s snarky fantasies.
And when it’s all run down and done, the good guys do all right. But they still haven’t won.
(Continues in the Mandell Weiss Theatre at UCSD at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and at 7 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 13, 2019.)