The final song in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton asks, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”? John Leguizamo and his collaborators have answered that question from a Latinx perspective in the new musical Kiss My Aztec!. Leguizamo doesn’t make an appearance in this production, but if you’re familiar with his one-man shows then you’ll recognize his swaggering sense of humor from the first number. Aztec! expands on the thought the monologist expressed in Latin History for Morons, his 2016 show at Berkeley Rep and later a Netflix special: “If you don’t see yourself represented outside of yourself, you just feel fucking invisible.” In this booming corrective, Leguizamo takes multicultural representation and amps it up to maximum visibility.
When you walk into the theater, up-tempo merengue tunes explode from the sound system (the volume is quadruple what it should be). It leads you to expect that the musical arrangements will all be of Latinx origins. But Benjamin Velez, who wrote and arranged the score, moves easily between salsa, hip-hop, and gospel. From that variety of stylistic approaches, he comes up with a blend of music that coheres. It’s helped along by the book (co-written by Leguizamo and Tony Taccone) and the lyrics (also by Velez, David Kamp, and Leguizamo). Aztec! emphatically announces its intentions with the opening song, “White People on Boats.”
We’ve arrived in 16th-century Mesoamerica, where the Spanish conquistadors are destroying the inhabitants with warfare and disease. Sung by the ensemble, this wry, knowing song sets the tone for the evening. It nullifies the current Republican idea of who’s trespassing on whose land, as in this scenario, the white people on boats are the villainous immigrants. From here, Kiss My Aztec! alternates between two points of view. The primary Aztec characters include a mystic, a captain, and his soldiers, with a developing romance between Pepe (Joél Pérez) and Colombina (Yani Marin), the captain’s daughter. A viceroy Rodrigo (Al Rodrigo) and his high-strung, overly entitled children Fernando (Zachary Infante) and Pilar (Desiree Rodriguez) represent the Spanish contingent. The plot leads to an inevitable, climactic battle between these opposing forces.
What lies between the first song and that final confrontation is a people’s history of the Aztecs. Leguizamo and company introduce Rodrigo with “No one compareth to the Spanish,” a song that offers tapas as Spain’s greatest accomplishment. As it swiftly moves along, Kiss My Aztec! is less interested in character development than the presentation of caricatures. Rodrigo, and what his family represents — colonial imperialism — are worthy and deserving targets of scorn. And Rodrigo sells his dastardliness with brio enough to conjure a Spanish Captain Hook. Whereas Snow White once consoled herself “With a Smile and a Song,” Pilar opens the second act with “Dark Meat,” a comic ode to her carnal cravings for Latin men.
Rodrigo is greedy. Pilar is horny. These are ripe, if easy, stereotypes to suggest the moral bankruptcy of European interlopers. But what the production does with Zachary Infante’s Fernando is just as politically incorrect as omitting the oppression of Latinx peoples from the history books. He’s a devious gay man having an affair with a Catholic cardinal. It’s not just that both men have been directed to swish up their characters to absolute queendom. It’s that the laughter they received from the audience was qualitatively different from that of their co-stars. The audience wasn’t simply laughing at Rodrigo’s ambition or Pilar’s desire; they found those lyrics funny. Regarding Fernando, what he was saying wasn’t the joke. With his floppy pageboy hairdo and shimmering pastel outfit, he was. This wasn’t Infante’s fault. He’s a charismatic actor and impressive singer. But in 2019, this felt like a tired portrait of a gay man, not a woke one. And wokeness is this musical’s raison d’être.
But Kiss My Aztec! intends to rile conventional or more conservative sensibilities. One erect, bejeweled codpiece in particular exemplified the production’s regular thrusting motion toward bawdiness. To balance out the crassness, the writers also include a character with a kindly disposition. Instead of parading his machismo, Pepe woos the warrior princess Colombina with puns. Easily switching from song to rap to dance, Pérez emerged as the breakout star. And, in a truly remarkable feat of ventriloquism, he made the inclusion of sock puppets tolerable. As in Hamilton, there’s plenty of forceful and forced bravado, posturing that’s used as a sword and a shield. But Pepe’s character felt like a new and welcome addition to this genre. He becomes a hero because he embraces his innate sense of humility, without having to change, fight against it, or struggle to become someone he’s not.
Kiss My Aztec!, through July 14 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $60-115; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org