Like everyone else, he's only got one life to live. But John Leguizamo appears determined to churn his into as many solo shows as possible.
With "Ghetto Klown," which opened Tuesday night on Broadway, this brash and street-smart success story from Queens is already up to five.
Leguizamo is 46 years old. At this rate, his one-man memoirs could reach double digits before all is said and done.
Then again, maybe not.
Leguizamo's new play throbs with big laughs and deep poignancy, as well as the infectious Latin beat and manic energy that's become his signature. But it becomes clear that there's a limit to how many times you can go to the same well.
"Ghetto Klown" at times echoes with been-there, heard-that.
Leguizamo's loyal and loudly responsive audience — out in force during a recent viewing of the show that just extended due to demand for tickets — doesn't seem to mind him revisiting old material and retracing some steps.
And while references to his turbulent childhood smack of "Freak" and women woes conjure "Sexaholix ... A Love Story," two of his previous shows, no one could accuse Leguizamo of going through the motions. He hits the stage like a gale force Hispanic hurricane — running, dancing, doing splits, before pausing to get at why he's really here: "I love spilling my guts out for you."
Gush he does, as himself and as dozens of characters including his estranged Colombian father and his Puerto Rican mother, slipping in and out of Spanish as he brings them to life. Voices of lovers, teachers, mentors and BFFs who became ex-BFFs also fill the stage.
Leguizamo gets that comedy comes out of pain. One of the most hilarious moments in the show comes as he illustrates how not working sends him into a depressive tailspin and turns him into a zombie. The bit is repeated several times, along with a video clip that plays on a screen on the otherwise mostly bare stage.
Actor Fisher Stevens directs the show. While it's hard to know precisely his contributions, he seems to have helped shape the show so that the pacing and the use of the playing space is maximized.
The bulk of the show centers on Leguizamo's ups and downs throughout the years, which, he points out in an author's note, he has reordered for dramatics' sake.
As he recalls his career, it's getting-even time. He skewers egomaniacal co-stars, unreliable directors (he does a great Brian DePalma) and coke-sniffing agents.
As he covers his life in movies, the recurring message is that he wanted to make more of his film roles, but directors and actors always got in the way and crushed his creativity.
Like his "Executive Decision" co-stars, Kurt Russell, who comes off as a pot-smoking jerk, and Steven Segal, a tubby blowhard.
Leguizamo killed Al Pacino in "Carlito's Way," and roughs him up a bit here too. "He sounded more like Foghorn Leghorn than Puerto Rican."
Pacino did Leguizamo a favor, though. He called him a clown — and gave him the title for his show.
Leguizamo has the good sense to fess up that he's less than easy to live with or work with — and that his problems are his fault, not everyone else's. It's probably safe to say anyone who's been up close and personal or professional can attest to his being a loose cannon. Their discomfort is our pleasure.
If you're simply watching him onstage and you've got distance between you, Leguizamo is one wildy entertaining guy.
John Leguizamo may be only 46, but he's been through enough to fill five autobiographical solo shows -- including 1998's "Freak," 2001's "Sexaholix . . . a Love Story" and now "Ghetto Klown," which opened last night on Broadway. If you still want more, there's even Leguizamo-to-go with the 2006 memoir "Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends."
Evidently, the actor-writer's life is a bottomless fount of inspiration, because "Ghetto Klown" starts all the way back with his move from Colombia to Queens when he was a child, using the previous shows as milestones in the timeline. Don't expect riffs on current events here -- there's only room for Leguizamo in the Leguizamoverse.
Luckily, our host is such a relentlessly entertaining character that it's a real fun trip, seemingly fueled by gallons of Red Bull. Leguizamo enters by pulling hip-hop moves to the sound of James Brown's "Sex Machine," and comes very close to sustaining that frenetic pace for more than two hours, though the energy -- both his and ours -- flags toward the end.
The running thread is Leguizamo's quest for approval, despite one rejection after another. He illustrates that theme by drawing from two main sources: his family and friends, and his screen career, with showbiz providing the biggest laughs.
Yes, making fun of Steven Seagal, Don Johnson and Kurt Russell is like shooting has-beens in a barrel, but that doesn't mean it's not satisfying -- especially when Leguizamo drives the point home by showing clips of the incriminating evidence. And he's such a nimble mimic that when he renders a multiperson conversation, it's like watching basketball players engage in lightning-quick passing.
The family stuff is equally conventional, especially to those who've seen Leguizamo's "Spic-O-Rama." Every time his father is mentioned, you know Pops will come up with a nasty, imaginative put-down. The relentless pursuit of the woman the star ends up marrying provides more stories of failed flirting and rebuffs, all rendered with the same mix of affection, bravado and mock humility.
Leguizamo does mention having a breakdown after "Sexaholix," but doesn't dwell on it. Though he relentlessly mines his life for material, he isn't one for introspection. He's a showman above all, eager to entertain -- as if to say there's nothing wrong with milking laughs from the tears of a Klown.
At 46, an age when many men are tempted to flee the treadmill and hoist the white flag in the battle against middle-age spread, John Leguizamo still appears to have the energy of a 12-year-old who has just downed a Red Bull and a jumbo package of Twinkies.
In his latest Broadway solo show, “Ghetto Klown,” which opened on Tuesday night at the Lyceum Theater, the toned and trim Mr. Leguizamo bops, boogies and break-dances across the stage and even up the aisles as he recounts his rollicking subway ride from obscurity in Queens to celebrity in Hollywood and New York. His pliant, expressive face and rubbery limbs are in virtually nonstop motion for two acts and almost two and a half hours.
But while the mysterious sources of Mr. Leguizamo’s boundless energy show no signs of imminent depletion, the writing in this, his fifth solo show over the course of two decades, is beginning to show traces of flab. “Ghetto Klown,” directed by Fisher Stevens, is enlivened by substantial doses of Mr. Leguizamo’s brash, impish humor, the twisted showboating of a grown-up kid who knows he should stop cracking jokes but keeps doing it anyway.
And yet a fair amount of the richest material — his tortured history as the son of a disappointed father who viewed his ambitions with a blend of indifference and envy — will be familiar to those who have seen his earlier shows. (His two previous Broadway outings were “Freak” in 1998 and “Sexaholix” in 2001.) Mr. Leguizamo’s stories of scrambling to forge a career in the ruthless economy of Hollywood, meanwhile, allow him to flash his prowess as an impressionist, but they don’t bring much fresh insight into the workings of that exhaustively anatomized world.
The spine of “Ghetto Klown” is the trajectory of Mr. Leguizamo’s show business career, from his first public performance in the conductor’s booth of a subway car to his renown as one of just a handful of successful Latino actors with a national profile. Stories of the hard-won highs and the dispiriting lows are woven together with anecdotes about how his increasing fame and career focus troubled the hardly placid waters of his relationships with his immigrant parents, his girlfriends and wives (two) and his best pal from the block.
The hyperactive John of the early years remains an irresistible character. Mr. Leguizamo’s re-enactments of the antic misbehavior that earned him attention both desired (a high school teacher sends him to an acting coach) and not (that subway stunt lands him in jail) are among the liveliest passages in the show.
Mr. Leguizamo’s embittered father, who glowers with disgust at his son’s exposure of his feelings and his need for attention, also remains a potent source of dismally funny stories. “Don’t be a sucker like Jesus,” he tells John. “Do what I do. Keep it inside.”
The young John burns with the urge to turn private frustration and pain into public performance, and he gradually acquires an acting coach (“Tweety,” she’s called, for her sparse white hair); gains an audience with the venerable Lee Strasberg; and lands an agent, or rather two: a stuttering old-school gent and his coke-snorting son.
Mr. Leguizamo is hilarious on the subject of his first television gig, as a Colombian cocaine prince on “Miami Vice.” Slides from the episode attest to his odd pallor, the result of misbegotten advice from his beloved grandfather: “Only white Latinos make it to Telemundo,” Gramps tells him. “Stay out of the sun. Walk on the shaded side of the street. Don’t even eat dark food.”
His first major movie, Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War,” brings a choice story of Sean Penn’s intensity: a scene requires him to slap Mr. Leguizamo at full force for take after take; naturally, it all ends up on the cutting room floor.
But as “Ghetto Klown” begins to meander between stories of Mr. Leguizamo’s key career breaks and the love troubles that attend them, you begin to wish that a prudent editor had been on hand to give more cogent shape to the writing. Tales of relationships undone by neglect and the pressures of a high-profile career are hardly novel, after all. The show’s energy stalls when Mr. Leguizamo slides from sharply funny satirical highs to puddles of banal confession about self-esteem problems and his inability truly to connect.
“I opened up to her because she was so vulnerable,” Mr. Leguizamo recalls of his second wife, whom he met when she worked in the costume department on the film “Carlito’s Way.” “I’d never felt I could really be my whole self with anyone. And she told me she felt she’s been waiting to exist her whole life.”
It’s nice that Mr. Leguizamo is ultimately able to work through his issues with intimacy and establish a family, but “Ghetto Klown” continues to lose altitude throughout much of the second act, as we begin to feel that we are simply attending a narrated slide presentation of his professional highlights and personal pratfalls. The impersonations of some of his more prickly co-workers — a humorless Kurt Russell, a pompous Steven Seagal, a bellowing Al Pacino — are pointed and precise, but perhaps a director who was not also an actor, as Mr. Stevens is, might have evinced less interest in the more unexceptional passages about the performer’s life. (But the digression about his flop television show “House of Buggin’ ” is almost worth it for its hilarious “West Side Story” spoof shown on the billboard-sized video screen that dominates the set, by Happy Massee.)
The sense of deflation is, of course, as much a problem of the material’s substance as it is of Mr. Leguizamo’s interpretation of it. It’s far easier to manufacture angst-tinged laughs from the struggles of a scrappy outsider trying to catch a break than it is to mint meaningful humor from tales of shenanigans on the set with Patrick Swayze.
Too often in “Ghetto Klown” the raw honesty and keen sense of the absurd that fuel Mr. Leguizamo’s sharpest material are replaced by glib joking and soft-centered stories about finding the right balance between life and work. The scabrous class clown begins to feel a little too much like a lecturer at the Learning Annex promoting his latest self-help book.
Industry eyes might find added value in the show as a well-packaged audition piece for hyper-active, hyper-talented and underused performer John Leguizamo.
John Leguizamo takes the stage for his latest one-man show “Ghetto Klown,” in which he explores the ups and downs of his life.
John Leguizamo hasn't done a one-man show on Broadway since "Sexaholix" in 2002, so rabid fans should turn out for his latest autobiographical opus, "Ghetto Klown," which had dry runs last year at Berkeley Rep and in Toronto. Auds with less emotional investment in the ups and downs of the star's personal life and career should find the show entertaining (the wicked impersonations, in particular), but nonetheless too long, too defensive and too familiar. Industry eyes might find added value in the show as a well-packaged audition piece for this hyper-active, hyper-talented and underused performer.
There's a lot of nostalgic content to this fast-moving and efficiently mounted (by Fisher Stevens) piece, starting with Leguizamo's personal history (a la "Freak") about emigrating with his parents from "El Anus, Colombia" and growing up "in the scrotum of Queens." (Thanks to the excellent -- and consistently amusing -- projection work by Aaron Gonzalez, both geographical beauty spots are now firmly etched in memory.)
There is also quite a bit (i.e. too much for casual aud comfort) about the performer's early loves, two marriages, and various domestic tribulations, in the manner, if not the spirit of "Sexaholix … A Love Story."
Less familiar is the tone of disappointment and regret that drags down the second act -- a second act that would be unnecessary if the show gets the trim it needs. Although the performer's fan base might be fascinated to get the gory details on his failed TV show (no mention is made of his short-lived Broadway appearance in "American Buffalo"), much of this material feels like an extension of formal therapy sessions.
Happily for Leguizamo admirers who come to laugh, there is beaucoup entertainment value (a la "Mambo Mouth") in the performer's dead-on (and deliciously cruel) impersonations of people he has worked with (or run from) over the course of a lifetime in film, theater, television, and on the mean streets of Queens.
Backed up by clips projected on a ghetto wall, the irrepressible performer rocks the house with imitations of the stars he has worked with: a heavy-lidded Don Johnson in "Miami Vice" ("really a cool fucking cat"); Mr. Method Man Sean Penn (who slapped him silly in "Casualties of War"); mumbling Al Pacino; prissy Steven Seagal; stiff-necked Kurt Russell -- each and every one of them agog (and maybe aghast) at his manic energy.
Had his mother been around on those movie sets, she might have explained to them, as she does here, in one of Leguizamo's kinder impersonations, that "he's not a delinquent -- he's just hyper."
While it's accurate to say that Leguizamo does great work when he's hyper, he's no less incisive -- and a lot more forgiving -- when it comes to people he respects and feels protective toward: his wise old grandfather; his first acting teacher; the best friend who let him down.
The caricatures don't have to be nasty to make an impact. But it does seem to help, and the thesp is far more impressive when he's taking down his first girlfriend, a poetess he met at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, than getting all mushy about his beloved wife.
As writer and performer, Leguizamo runs the whole gamut of emotions here. And once he fine-tunes the feelings, he'll have himself another fine show.