John Leguizamo is presenting his solo show Ghetto Klown tonight free at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park starting at 8 p.m. (Get there early.) This is the same show he performed on Broadway in 2011.
Here is my review of the show when it was at the Lyceum:
John Leguizamo and I go way back, though he is unaware of this. Our theatrical careers began at the same time, the exact same moment in fact
I was on the staff of a publication that actually paid health benefits when the arts editor asked to borrow me to review Leguizamo’s Off-Broadway show, “Mambo Mouth,” his first solo show, my first review.
He was an unknown, a performer in his 20’s who had a few bit parts on TV and in the movies, when he appeared on the small stage of the American Place Theater (since taken over by the Roundabout), mimicking friends, family and neighbors, male and female, from his childhood in Queens, almost all of them Latino. Stripping down to his underwear, showing the audience an impossibly buff bod between bits, he donned the dress, the precise voice and the laugh-inducing attitude of a transvestite hooker, then his own nasty father, then a Yuppie Hispanic who wanted to be a Japanese businessman, then his own plaintive mother, then an illegal alien named Pepe.
It was an impressive theatrical debut, and it got unmitigated raves, from everyone but me. I had diligently gone back to watch his screen performances, mostly playing stereotyped Latino characters, and they prompted me to ask of the characters he created on stage: “Is he parodying stereotypes? Or is he himself largely guilty of perpetuating them?”
So few critics had anything at all negative to say about “Mambo Mouth” that a first profile of Leguizamo in People Magazine quoted the negative from my review, for balance.
It is astonishing to realize that two full decades have passed since his debut, John Leguizamo is 46 years old, and he is now on Broadway performing his fifth one-man stage show, entitled “Ghetto Klown.” In many ways, Leguizamo has not changed. He has the same electric energy (although now after he dances, he says in mock-exhaustion “Wow, I can’t do that anymore”). He has kept in shape – we again see him in his underwear, although this time his buff body is projected on the screen that accompanies his live stage act – a screen that is used to great and sometimes very funny effect. And he has the same immense talent for mimicry, a talent that has deepened and broadened over time.
He is also going over some of the same material – his Queens childhood, his difficult family, the hyperactive clowning that made him take over the conductor’s microphone to MC the subway ride, which led first to his arrest, and then to his career. (His school counselor suggested he take acting lessons.) The focus of “Ghetto Klown” is on that career. It turns out, some of those roles that had troubled me troubled him too. “I went to many, many, many auditions until I finally landed my first drug dealer,” he tells us, slyly.
He re-enacts encounters with famous acting teacher Lee Strasberg, Miami Vice star Don Johnson, Sean Penn, Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal , and, most memorably, Al Pacino, who gives this show its title. Exasperated by Leguizamo’s ad-libbing while playing a drug dealer opposite Pacino in the film “Carlito’s Way,” Pacino says (in Leguizamo’s priceless rendition of him) “Just be yourself, you clown.”
Interspersed with the narrative of his career struggles are his struggles with romantic relationships, self-esteem, depression. “I love spilling my guts out for you,” he tells us. “You’re like free therapy. I should be paying you tonight.”
There is no question that John Leguizamo has become a celebrity in the 20 years since “Mambo Mouth,” possibly in large part because of the showcase for his talents provided by that and his subsequent solo stage shows (“Spic-o-rama,” “Freak,” Sexaholic…A Love Story”). But Leguizamo’s disappointment in his career is one of the undercurrents of “Ghetto Klown,” which marks his return to the stage after an eight-year hiatus. (He tells us he had a nervous breakdown after “Sexaholic…’) He is one of those extraordinary artists – others include Anna Deavere Smith and Cherry Jones – that Hollywood and the TV networks don’t seem to know what to do with, and so largely waste. Their talent is too big for two dimensions; it needs to fill a stage. Welcome back, John Leguizamo. Sorry for the quote in People.