To describe the brash intensity of live-wire character actor John Leguizamo's onstage performance, the New York Daily News wrote that he “hits the stage like a gale-force Hispanic hurricane — running, dancing, doing splits — before pausing to get at why he’s really on stage: ‘I love spilling my guts out for you.’”
His widely acclaimed comic tour-de-force one-man shows on Broadway seem to flow effortlessly with an impromptu spontaneity, but each of the three shows required a workmanlike dedication that spanned years. His last solo venture, “Ghetto Klown,” was a three-year obligation. But the hard work paid off: Originally announced as a 12-week engagement, “Ghetto Klown” was extended due to ticket demand to a 120-performance run, a near-record for a Broadway production with a single cast member.
PBS’ “Tales from a Ghetto Klown,” to air Friday, July 13, at 8 p.m. on KUED, is a behind-the-scenes document of this lengthy creative process and offers an enlightening view into the commitment each of his hit shows have required.
Leguizamo’s original script — which, like his previous shows, puts a hilarious twist on his real-life experiences — was voluminous, with many pages consisting only of punch lines. Leguizamo and director Fisher Stevens, often working 16- and 18-hour days, rewrite and reshape the show. The show-in-progress is then staged at various out-of-town tryouts, from La Jolla, Calif., to Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival. The early productions are not without frustrations. At a Chicago limited-engagement workshop production, then called “John Leguizamo Warms Up,” opening night coincided with the area’s largest snowstorm that closed down the city.
Like his previous shows, “Ghetto Klown” is get-even time, but in this outing the primary focus is on his struggles in showbiz. When cast as a drug dealer in “Miami Vice” early in his career, Leguizamo is unsure if he should play the role. But he receives encouragement from a kindly acting teacher, who advises he may become “the Latino Laurence Olivier.” His “third-world commie pinko” Gramps tells him “only white Latinos make it to Telemundo,” so “walk on the shaded side of the street.”
Unreliable directors and egomaniacal co-stars are also skewered. By his account, Steven Segal is a tubby blowhard, and when acting with Al Pacino in “Carlito’s Way,” Leguizamo says the acting legend's character “sounded more like Foghorn Leghorn than Puerto Rican.”
The film also follows Leguizamo to Colombia, where he performs a Spanish-language version of “Ghetto Klown” after the painstaking process of translating the script and perfecting Spanish that he was not fluent in.
In moments of despair, there is coarse language used, with the few most offensive words bleeped, but the usage of objectionable material is slim compared to the word-after-word stream of profanities commonly heard in routines of many popular stand-up comics.
“Tales from a Ghetto Klown” presents a convincing case that creating and starring in a one-man Broadway show is not for dilettantes, but a bit more of the “Ghetto Klown” performance would have been welcomed — there's only little hint that Leguizamo is indeed a hyperkinetic acting dynamo and ace mimic. But with his two previous shows, “Mambo Mouth” and “Spic-O-Rama,” filmed for HBO broadcasts, Leguizamo seems to have shied away from another telecast with his typical “been there, done that” attitude.