In 2006, James Frey’s autobiographical tale of substance abuse A Million Little Pieces was lambasted by The Smoking Gun for its inaccuracies. Frey responded, highlighting that while details had been changed, the story was still the “essential truth” of beating his substance addiction.
This is the problem of the memoir, either on the page or the stage. We want to believe the artist is baring their soul only to us, but the very process of writing and performing means the work is rewritten and redefined.
John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown, making its UK debut after an award-running run in New York, is no different. We know it has been repeatedly performed and that we’re not the only audience he’s confided in. Johnny Legs, as he calls himself, acknowledges in his programme note that the timeline has been altered and character amalgamated, but, like Frey, the “essential truth” remains.
The question is – can a memoir show work if the truth has been altered? And should it matter?
Here, it doesn’t matter at all. Leguizamo is a born showman, obviously much happier on stage than on film despite a varied but (largely) respectable resume including Carlito’s Way, Summer of Sam and The Super Mario Brothers Movie. At 47, he is still dangerously handsome, break dancing and body popping across the stage, firing off Hollywood impressions with gusto. Steven Seagal and Brian De Palma should watch their backs.
However, it’s his own private story that engages – the distant father who rejected him for putting his family life on stage in early shows; the failed relationships after chasing women who reject him; and, most poignantly, the quiet death of his revolutionary grandfather. His ear for mimicry is both devastating and affectionate, conjuring a cast of characters who share the intimate Charing Cross Theatre with him.
The show is slicker than slick – Peter Fitzgerald’s sound and Aaron Gonzales’ projection designs are razor sharp – and Fisher Stevens’ direction never lets the pace drop. This ‘Latino Laurence Olivier’ has the audience eating from his hand from the moment he dances on stage.
Leguizamo’s is a life lived sometimes well, sometimes badly, but ultimately lived to the full and that is what makes this story so compelling. Johnny Legs is only in town until mid-November. Spend a night with him.