Review: KISS MY AZTEC! at Hartford Stage

Hilarious new musical Kiss My Aztec! Opens to Well-Deserved Standing Ovation in Hartford

By: Jun. 14, 2022
Review: KISS MY AZTEC!  at Hartford Stage
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A brand new musical comedy, Kiss My Aztec! made its East Coast premiere at Hartford Stage and opened to a well-deserved standing ovation.

Kiss My Aztec! Is a hilarious musical based on Latin American history ".... Very loosely!" This upbeat show is a real party with entirely original music, bold and bright-colored sets and costuming, as well as an exceptionally multitalented cast that keeps the energy up from start to finish.

The creative team is led by John Leguizamo (who co-wrote the book with acclaimed director Tony Taccone), music by Benjamin Velez, lyrics by David Kamp, Leguizamo and Velez, and choreography by Mayte Natalio.

We travel back to the 16th century as a group of Aztecs face the Spanish invaders. The Aztec witch, Tolima (played by Maria-Christina Oliveras), delivers a prophecy that promises her people will save their homeland when the moon turns red. As such, the Aztec leader, El Jaguar Negro (played by Eddie Cooper) readies his men for war, while his daughter, Colombina, a fierce warrior determined to join the fight (Played by Krystina Alabado) defies his orders to stay home with the other women. Alongside our heroine is a silly clown, Pepe (played by Joel Perez), who prefers puppets to war. The untraditional pair go on an adventure that includes hilarious hijinks with royalty, the Spanish Inquisition, ritual sacrifice, colonizers, astrologers, pop stars, and even a puppet rap battle. (I do admit that I winced when I read "puppet rap battle" in the program, but I promise you, it was fantastic.) Hysterical subplots include a forbidden love between Spanish royalty and the Church, a feisty Spanish princess with a desire for a new kind of love, and a French con-artist whose one-liners and dazzling costume you won't soon forget.

Amidst the comedy, the show introduces facts about the 12th-16th century Mesoamerican people, like their religious and cultural beliefs, all the while making poignant parallels to world issues today.

What's Kiss My Aztec! like?

It is a breath of fresh air to see a show that's totally new, different, uplifting, relevant, and original. Kiss My Aztec! is fun and fresh production, a truly unique blend of Latin-American culture and music, beloved Broadway musicals, and endless pop culture references that delight. It is sidesplittingly funny, unpredictable, and smart. Most importantly, the show is self-aware without taking itself too seriously.

Though the show is set in the 16th century, this clever comedy challenges today's world views, particularly on immigration and how we address American history, and invites us laugh at ourselves. The program notes by John Leguizamo and David Kamp say, "The point is, it shouldn't be burdensome to address the inequities and tragedies of the past. Through laughter and song, we begin to occupy a space of mutual empathy and understanding. Once you acknowledge that America is imperfect and that your family is a part of its story, you're down with us - in on the conspiracy."

Directly influenced by Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton and pushing-the-envelope comedies like Book of Mormon and Monty Python's Spamalot, Kiss My Aztec! is a full-on contemporary musical featuring hilariously entertaining songs like White People on Boats, Spooneth Me, Happy Amigos, Chained Melody, and New Girl New World. The show takes the opportunity to explore Latin-America's wide variety of music including gospel, funk, Motown, salsa, hip hop, tango, mariachi, merengue, flamenco, pop, R&B, Bossa nova, Latin-infused EDM/rave, Brazilian and samba inspired, and even 80s pop. Composer Benjamin Velez's fantastic music keeps you on your toes as both an audience member and a performer. No two songs are alike and the score is demanding. The cast and orchestra (lead by Roberto Sinha) delivered a flawless performance. Furthermore, the performers supplemented with virtuosic riffs and displays of their incredible vocal chops, spicing up an already lively score.

Before I saw the show, I interviewed John Leguizamo and he told me, "The music is a Latin mix tape that you would hear at one of my parties. The [show's] music makes me wanna get up out of my seat and dance." I now see what he means. I honestly struggled not to get up and dance, myself! The opening number, "White People on Boats," a salsa and hip hop mix, had me in stitches and I'm still humming it days later.

The wildly talented cast features a diverse and wonderfully representative group with true professionals. The Kiss My Aztec! roster features a long list of Broadway and regional credits, but it's especially nice to see that many of the actors starred in the original productions at La Jolia Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The whole cast is a marvel, swiftly moving between scenes, dancing, hopping up and down the scaffolding, all the while blending harmonies beautifully. Most of the actors play two supporting roles that are radically different characters and then seamlessly slip back into the ensemble. They made it look easy and I assure you that it's not!

The cast has a beautiful energy and delivered such a powerful performance that I got completely swept up in it. All the performers are seriously talented. The strong and engaging ensemble and swings (Angelica Beliard, Nicholas Caycedo, KC Dela Cruz, Chad Carstarphen, Geena Quintos, Jesus E. Martinez, and Brittany Nicole Williams) were amazing. Eddie Cooper's velvety voice and impeccable comic timing (as El Jaguar Negro and Reymundo are not to be missed.) Richard Ruiz Henry had me crying with laughter as Pierre Pierrot. Z Infante (as Fernando/Sebastian), Maria Christina Oliveras (as Tolima), and Desiree Rodriguez (Pilar/Ixtli) are all powerhouse vocalists with unbelievable chops. Every moment that Matt Saldivar (as Rodrigo and Uncle Paco) was on stage was spectacular. Joel Perez brought a depth to the silly clown, Pepe, and had me crying with laughter. Perez and Krystina Alabado's songs showcased breathtaking musical talent.

The production team is clearly a winner and includes Scenic and Costume Designer Clint Ramos (scenic design for Slave Play on Broadway; costume design for the motion picture Respect with Jennifer Hudson), Lighting Designer Alexander V. Nichols (Broadway: Hugh Jackman Back on Broadway); Sound Designers Jessica Paz (Broadway: Hadestown) and Beth Lake (Regional: Selling Kabul); Hair & Wig Designer Charles G. LaPointe (Broadway: MJ The Musical); Production Stage Manager Jeff Rodriguez (Broadway: Kiss Me Kate); Music Supervisor David Gardos (Broadway: Big Fish); Music Director Roberto Sinha (National Tour: Hamilton, Kinky Boots); and Puppet Designer James Ortiz (The Public Theatre: Disney's Hercules, As You Like It). Casting is by Tara Rubin Casting: Xavier Rubiano, CSA.

The set design starts with a base of industrial scaffolding and floor-to-ceiling brick walls which are painted in a Graffiti street art style. A moving sidewalk introduces many gags and the stage swiftly transforms from Spanish royal court to a glitzy pop concert. The costuming is perfectly-executed, inventive and elaborate. It honors Latin-American cultural traditions with lots of bright colors and mixing loud patterns. Ramos even included modern footwear by Peruvian designer, Passeri. The attention to detail is marvelous and I want the golden cod piece bag for my own closet.

Is it really that good?

Frankly, production-wise, there wasn't a single weak point in the entire show. The cast is phenomenal! The sets, costuming, and choreography were all on point.

I was a little concerned when I read the content warning that it contains bawdy humor and adult themes. While I'm not generally a fan of crude humor, I'll make an exception if it's done well. Regarding vulgarity and silliness here, a few things rubbed me the wrong way, but they were so few and far between and outweighed by the positive that I can't remember them now. Kiss My Aztec!'s humor is smart and moves fast with upbeat music that makes you want to dance. I laughed my Aztec off*.

Content-wise, one joke that made me roll my eyes in the very beginning and I was initially not thrilled about the puppets, but soon after I was totally on board. If there was any repeated material, the performers always upped the ante with impressive vocal virtuosity and high energy dancing, more than making up for it.

They say it's loosely based on history, but it's more of a commentary of what's happening today. It's relevant, holds no punches, and those who are offended by the idea of, "white fragility" may have their feathers ruffled.

Though I didn't completely connect with the warrior princess and I wasn't entirely convinced by the romantic subplot, I forgave both points because Perez and Alabado shined and delivered outstanding performances (especially the love song, Chained Melody, which was out of this world.)

You don't want to miss Kiss My Aztec!

Kiss My Aztec! is a hit bound for Broadway. With a constant stream of Broadway musicals based on movies, revivals, and classics that we've all already seen, Kiss My Aztec! would make a welcome addition, shaking things up and getting the party started. Frankly, I hope it opens as soon as possible, mostly because I need the soundtrack in my life pronto.

Kiss My Aztec! runs through June 26 with performances Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; and Sunday matinees at 2pm. There are 2pm matinees on Wednesday, June 15 and Saturday, June 11 and 25. The Open Captioned performance is Sunday, June 19 at 2 pm. The Audio Described performance is Saturday, June 25 at 2 pm. Talkbacks with the cast will take place following the matinee performance on June 12, evening performance on June 14, and matinee performance on June 15.

Tickets for Kiss My Aztec! are $30-$100 with discounts for students and groups. Tickets can be purchased by visiting HartfordStage.org, by calling (860) 527-5151, or by visiting the Hartford Stage Box Office at 50 Church Street, Hartford, CT from noon to 5pm. A special section of seats start at $45 and come with a limited-edition swag bag with a free drink coupon that can be picked up at the Hartford Stage gift shop.

*I know this joke is obvious, but I had to do it.

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

Review: KISS MY AZTEC!  at Hartford Stage

Review: KISS MY AZTEC!  at Hartford Stage Review: KISS MY AZTEC!  at Hartford Stage Review: KISS MY AZTEC!  at Hartford Stage

Review: KISS MY AZTEC!  at Hartford Stage Review: KISS MY AZTEC!  at Hartford Stage Review: KISS MY AZTEC!  at Hartford Stage Review: KISS MY AZTEC!  at Hartford Stage

 




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