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Theatre on Video: John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown on HBO

Somehow, all three of the Theatre on Video reviews that I’ve written(so far)have been on one-man shows. This has not been by design, just the luck of the draw. But this one is easily the most ebullient and exciting of the trio, because John Leguizamo is such an energetic and diverse performer. He had me at his dead-on Al Pacino impersonation—and I bet that will get most of you too. Mr. Leguizamo has had an array of HBO-filmed stage performances over the last two decades, with titles like “Spic-O-Rama” and “Freak”, and I’ve caught select scenes from these while channel surfing through the years. But this was the first time I actually made the effort to sit down and complete one in full—and it was a rare treat. John L is a bit older now(he’ll turn 50 later this year), a bit thicker(at least compared to his two-decades old work as Chi-Chi Rodriguez in “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar”), and perhaps wiser(after cementing his true-life role as a husband and father, “Ghetto Klown” is Leguizamo’s first filmed theatre piece in over a decade). I understand that “Ghetto Klown” has been somewhat streamlined since appearing on Broadway in 2011. This version was recorded at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center(NJPAC)in Newark in 2013.

And it’s a chronological, kaleidoscope trip through a solid chunk of Johnny Legz'(as he refers to himself during the show on more than one occasion)life. You’ll get a glimpse of his Queens-raised childhood, his struggling-to-make-ends-meet mother, his absentee father, and his earliest attempts at performing—for riders on the subway’s #7 line. Later, you’ll learn of his brief acting instruction from the late, great Lee Strasberg, and his first big part as a drug dealer on 1980’s television show, “Miami Vice”. As time marches on, John informs us about his issues with getting slapped by Method actor Sean Penn, while filming a scene for Brian de Palma’s 1989 “Casualties of War”(a scene that was later cut from the finished film), as well as an episode of being chided by star Al Pacino(for allegedly “over-acting”), in-between takes during de Palma’s 1993 “Carlito’s Way”. Sure, “Ghetto Klown” gets a bit sloppy and sentimental in the second act when Leguizamo concentrates a sizable portion of the latter half focusing on pursuing and winning his second wife, Justine(she worked behind-the-scenes on one of his film projects when they first met). Also, a touching, tearful reunion with his Dad threatens to turn into schmaltz—until the reality of a lawsuit filed by Pops slaps things back into reality.  But these are minor quibbles as Leguizamo struts, bops, dances, splits(well, almost)and bounces his way through this 95-minute piece.

“Ghetto Klown” was directed by actor Fisher Stevens(both here and during its original Broadway run), and Mr. Stevens adroitly walks that tightrope of controlling the staging, while also allowing John L plenty of freedom to move, mimic and impersonate. Leguizamo won both a Drama Desk and an Outer Critics Circle Award for writing and starring in this play, and it’s a nicely streamlined work, with Mr. Leguizamo managing both electricity and command. I’ll bet this stuff works even better live, but for those of us that didn’t make it to the stage, this is a more than acceptable(and often hilarious), substitution.      This Theatre on Video performance rates an 8

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