La Jolla Playhouse’s Kiss My Aztec! begins with a clever musical commentary about imperialism called “White People On Boats.” The thought occurs: This is going to be an intelligent show with all the biting ferocity of its terrific title. But no. What follows with the exception of the closing number are more than two hours of high-energy but overly familiar comedy devices, from characters in hapless disguise (codpiece anyone?) to talking hand puppets to near-slapstick of the shuddering kind.
What makes this all so disappointing is that Kiss My Aztec!, a co-production of the Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, was written by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone and the multitalented John Leguizamo, whose solo affair “Latin History for Dummies” rocked the Playhouse three years ago. Leguizamo has said that Spamalot was an inspiration for Kiss My Aztec! But this new show, the music for which was written by Benjamin Velez, with Velez, Leguizamo and David Kamp collaborating on the lyrics, is nowhere near as artful as that Monty Python joyride.
The score of Kiss My Aztec! is an amalgam of musical genres, including rap, salsa, and approximations of gospel and R&B. This mash-up is less jarring than the book, which endeavors to tell the story of the Aztec people of 16th-century Mesoamerica rising up against bloody conquerors from Spain. The narrative has all the simmering undercurrent of contemporary cultural and racial dynamics but is at least in part dressed up like an historical spoof. The latter overwhelms the former, which is distinctly unsatisfying.
Joel Perez (he of the hand puppets) and Yani Marin (playing a feminist-minded warrior) try hard as the leads up against Al Rodrigo, who all but twirls his mustache as the villainous Spanish heavy. Desiree Rodriguez stands out as his daughter, Pilar, who attempts to defy her father via deflowering by a man of color – Rodriguez’s “Dark Meat” tune is a keeper.
Clint Ramos is scenic and costume designer for Kiss My Aztec!, and his stellar efforts on both counts are very much in the spirit of a production that means well but largely sacrifices its critical messages in the pursuit of easy laughs.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/11/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.