Review Roundup: What Did Critics Think of KISS MY AZTEC! at La Jolla Playhouse?
The world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! is currently running at La Jolla Playhouse through October 13th following a previous run at Berkeley Rep.
This fresh, irreverent musical comedy could only spring forth from the clever and culturally savvy mind of John Leguizamo (who seriously schooled Berkeley Rep audiences with Latin History for Morons). With an energetic musical fusion of salsa, Latin boogaloo, hip-hop, gospel, funk, and merengue, and an inspired mash-up of Elizabethan dialect and modern slang, Kiss My Aztec! celebrates, elevates, and commemorates Latinx culture.
European conquest? Hell, no! It may be the 16th century in Spanish-occupied Mesoamerica, but these Aztecs is woke. Led by the unlikely duo of Colombina (a fierce female warrior) and Pepe (a not-so-fierce clown), they mount a scrappy resistance against their Spanish oppressors-and somehow get entangled in the dysfunctional dynamics of the Spanish viceroy's bickering family. Will our heroes get conquistadored by whitey or win the day?
The creative team includes: John Leguizamo (Book/Lyricist), Tony Taccone (Book/Director), Benjamin Velez (Music/Lyricist/Arranger), David Kamp (Lyricist), Maija García (Choreographer), David Gardos (Music Supervisor), Simon Hale (Orchestrator), Wilson Torres (Percussion Arranger), Clint Ramos (Scenic/Costume Design), Alexander V. Nichols (Lighting Design), Jessica Paz (Sound Design), Amy Potozkin, CSA (Casting), Tara Rubin Casting (Casting), Madeleine Oldham (Dramaturg), Michael Suenkel (Production Stage Manager) and Megan McClintock (Assistant Stage Manager).
Let's check out what the critics thought...
San Diego Reviews
E.H. Reiter, BroadwayWorld: There is an attempt to create a language hybrid infused with modern, hip hop, slang, and Elizabethan language that is effective but could benefit from not ending in so many words in "ist" or "ith." After a while it starts to feel more forced than it needs to as the show goes on. (There is also plenty of adult language and situations for those who may find that offensive.) Music by Benjamin Velez, and lyrics by David Kamp, Velez, and Leguizamo have created genre-hopping song infused with salsa, jazz, hip-hop, and more. It's a fitting mix for a show about forced integration of diametrically opposed forces that the show doesn't fit any one musical style. Scenic design and costume design by Clint Ramos blends the contemporary with the industrial set allowing cast to climbs and utilize the varying heights, with costumes that range from fully historical costume to more modern uses of leather, denim, and more.
James Herbert, San Diego Tribune: Leguizamo and Taccone's dialogue style pays comic lip service to the period (embodied in such song titles as "Spooneth Me"). But the show's feel is otherwise full-on contemporary, from Clint Ramos' towering, industrial set and his costume riot of leather, shorts and more, to Velez's vivid mix of salsa, Latin jazz and other styles, to the topical jabs at the border wall and other subjects in both book and lyrics (the latter penned by Leguizamo, Velez and David Kamp). Music director/conductor-keyboardist Kenji Higashihama's six-member band, perched high above the stage, powers through numbers like the ingeniously staged love song "Chained Melody" with plenty of versatility (boosted by Jennifer Paz's sound design), and at one point gives its own kiss-off - actually, more like a flip-off - to the viceroy. Alexander V. Nichols' dynamic lighting lends sharp definition to freeze-frames and other moments. You won't learn a whole lot of actual history in "Aztec!," which dubs itself as "Aztec revenge porn." But you'll be reminded in the rousing finale (which showcases Maija García's sharp choreography) that "the world is getting browner."
San Francisco Reviews
Steve Murray, BroadwayWorld: The hardworking ensemble cast is solid through and through, not a weak link to be found. They're infused with the energy of working on an important project that has cultural significance while being fun as hell to perform. As the two leads, Yani Marin's sassy, feminist Columbina and Joel Perez's unwilling hero Pepe make an engaging combative couple. Told to stay home and out of battle, Columbina is having nothing to do with that and takes action into her very capable hands. Pepe would much rather entertain with his two sock puppets Machu and Pichu than become a hero, but his attraction to the beautiful Columbina is hard to overcome.
Karen D'Souza, The Mercury News: From the show's opening number "White People on Boats" to the cheeky finale about the world "getting browner," Aztec revels in a beyond-gaudy vibe that pivots from vulgar to the revolutionary. Take-no-prisoners sarcasm suffuses the world premiere musical, which mixes low-brow humor with high-minded ideas about the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish in 1560. Framed by hip-hop throw downs and graffiti art, this is Latinx history and culture seen through the post-modern prism of potty-mouthed stand-up comedy. The easily offended may well be taken aback by this naughty narrative of the new world.
Emily S. Mendel, Berkeleyside: For, after all, Kiss My Aztec! is at heart an old-fashioned comedy, with a Latin perspective, filled with lots of sight gags, set and costume changes, noise, and great music, like a brassy Broadway musical. Political correctness flies out the window between burlesquing the gay relationship between Fernando and his inquisitor, and Pilar's song, "Dark Meat," sung as she dreams of a Latin lover. All in good fun, but at times it felt a bit dated, nonetheless.
Marcus Crowder, Datebook: The consistently clever songs by Benjamin Velez (music, lyrics and arranger), David Kamp (lyrics) and Leguizamo (lyrics) move stealthily across the Afro-Latino musical diaspora incorporating hip-hop, reggaeton, salsa, Latin boogaloo, merengue and gospel, ingeniously matching styles to characters and situations. An onstage, six-piece live band skillfully navigates the variety of rhythmic styles.
Robert Sokol, San Francisco Examiner: Taccone, in his final production as artistic director, referees a tight ensemble of talented clowns, most of whom get spotlight moments. Richard Henry Ruiz generates freewheeling mayhem as the coca-addled political fixer Pierre Pierrot, and Zachary Infante spins fawning obsequiousness into seething comic gold as the scheming prince Fernando.
Marcus Crowder, San Francisco Chronicle: Composer Velez outfits characters with stylistically revealing songs - Pepe's signature "Punk-Ass Geek-A" is a poppy salsa and potential Spanish savior Sebastian (Infante again) slickly croons "New Girl, New World"as a glitzy pop plea, while Rodrigo has a laughably silky smooth ballad duet with a disguised Colombina on "Spooneth Me." There's as much sincere appreciation of the musical styles as there is winking at them. The songs push the plot revealing Pepe's romantic interest in Colombina, Sebastian's understanding of the impending marriage contract and Rodrigo's underlying insecurity.
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