HARTFORD, Conn. — It was not a typical evening at the theater in Connecticut's capital as even the normally staid pre-show announcement drew cheers.
“Whassup, mi gente!” John Leguizamo exclaimed in a recording that delighted audience members.
This was the scene ahead of the first preview of Leguizamo’s new musical comedy, “Kiss My Aztec!” at Hartford Stage. Following acclaimed runs on the West Coast, the show opens June 10 and runs until June 26.
Set in the 16th century, “Kiss My Aztec!” tells the story of a band of Aztec warriors leading the resistance against the Spanish conquistadores.
“We have such a wealth of stories that we’ve had for 500 years in America, in Latin America,” Leguizamo said. “Mythology, inventors, scientists, fighters, heroes, and I want those stories to be told, so I sort of picked the beginning of Latin man.”
By any conventional metric, the show is unique. It includes a musicalized ritual Aztec sacrifice, an appearance by a Walter Mercado-esque character and a same-sex paso doble — a traditional dance — beneath a glittering disco ball. There are also two wily puppets, named Machu and Picchu.
Leguizamo — the actor, comedian, writer and producer — co-wrote the show with Tony Taccone. It aims to showcase the rich history of Latinos.
“Musically, it’s like coming to a party at my house,” Leguizamo said. “The music is bachata, cumbia, merengue, ranchera, and we’ve got hip-hop and funk in there, too.”
In the opening number, the show’s cast sings, “The end o’ good times, in most tropical climes, is white people on boats!” But Leguizamo and his co-lyricist David Kamp wrote in the program that they hope laughter and song can help people reach a place of mutual empathy and understanding.
“If only people could chill out and not be afraid of history,” they wrote. “Once you acknowledge that America is imperfect ... you’re down with us — and in on the joke.”
Leguizamo wrote the show, but he's not in it. While he has "an incredible voice," he said, he can't keep "a melody or a pitch."
Hartford is the third stop for “Kiss My Aztec!” after earlier runs at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the La Jolla Playhouse in California in 2019. The San Francisco Examiner praised it as “sassy, rollicking, take-no-prisoners, equal-opportunity entertainment,” while The San Diego Union-Tribune called it an “entertainingly renegade twist on history.”
Reviewers have compared “Kiss My Aztec!” to shows like “Spamalot,” “The Book of Mormon” and TV’s “South Park.”
The Hartford production is billed as a pre-Broadway experience. “That’s the plan,” Leguizamo said about the show's ambitions. “That’s Plan A, B and C.”
Leguizamo is a prolific actor in television and film and on stage. His Broadway shows include “Freak” (1998) and “Ghetto Klown” (2011). He received a special Tony Award in 2018 for his solo show, “Latin History for Morons,” where he highlighted aspects of Latino history that mostly are overlooked — and are not even known — to many Americans, including Latinos.
“We’re sorely missing everywhere — our stories, our culture,” Leguizamo said in a recent NBC News interview about his new musical.
“Just the amount of Latin talent that exists right now is so potent. ... We are so gifted, and we just don’t get a chance to express ourselves,” he said.
'Truly its own thing' — and 'raunchy and silly'
“Kiss My Aztec!” is directed by Tony Taccone, with music by Benjamin Velez and choreography by Mayte Natalio. It features a nearly all-Latino cast. This alone is unusual; Actors' Equity Association, the union representing actors in live theater, reported in 2020 that only 3.6 percent of contracts went to Latino performers.
Krystina Alabado, who plays Colombina, said working on “Kiss My Aztec!” has “honestly been like a complete dream.”
“I have never felt so at home in a work environment,” Alabado said. “Being in a room full of Latinx creators, I feel the energy in the cast. We want the work to be good, because this project is special to us. This show is allowing people to see us in a different way.”
Alabado, who appeared in “Mean Girls” on Broadway, said she hopes this show can “maybe inspire a little girl who looks like me to know that she can belong in theater.”
In “Kiss My Aztec!,” Joel Perez plays a love interest for Alabado’s character. Perez has been with the show since it began as a reading in Pregones theater in the Bronx, New York, in 2014.
“The show is hard to describe. It’s like a revisionist historical musical farce. ‘Kiss My Aztec!’ is truly its own thing. It’s a big comedy that is escapist, raunchy and silly,” Perez said. “It is a mix of highbrow and lowbrow, and I hope it sets a precedent for the theater [industry] to take more risks with Latino stories.”
The artistic director of Hartford Stage, Melia Bensussen, has a personal history with Leguizamo. In the late 1980s, she and Leguizamo performed in bilingual street theater together, to help educate young Latinos about AIDS and HIV prevention.
Bensussen sees her mission at Hartford Stage as connecting with the community.
“We have a large Latino population here that has not been represented on our stage and in our audience,” she said. “One of the reasons I took this job was to expand the city’s idea of what goes on at Hartford Stage.”
Bensussen, who grew up in Mexico, pointed out that Hartford is 44 percent Latino.
“This show is relevant in so many ways to what our city theater needs,” she said. “The American theater is struggling right now in terms of identity and who we are doing works for. ... Our theaters have to be filled with the range of people who are changing our culture and changing our cities.”
'We're stronger together'
Before the show started, the theater had a distinctly Latino vibe. In the lobby, a Latin jazz ensemble entertained guests as they snacked on churros and guacamole and chips. Inside the auditorium, Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” blasted from the speakers, while some audience members playfully danced down the aisle to their seats.
Leguizamo said he hopes audiences will see “Kiss My Aztec!” and “know how incredible our [Latin] history is and how talented we are and that we are unstoppable. I want Latinos to walk out of there feeling 10 feet tall, untouchable.”
To Leguizamo, Latinos are the “most welcoming people on the planet,” and he wants all audiences to enjoy his show.
“I want everybody [there],” he said. “We’re stronger together. That’s the theme of my play. That’s the theme of my life. That’s my whole life’s quest.”