NEW YORK — Latina grandmothers, black teenagers, Irish blue-collar workers, and Korean newsstand owners - 41 different characters in all - burst in and out of their stories during "Freak," now running at Broadway's Cort Theatre. And all 41 are portrayed by John Leguizamo.
Following successful preview performances in Chicago and Washington, the show has catapulted the young comedian and actor into the front ranks of one-person performers.
His earlier "Mambo Mouth" and "Spic-O-Rama," which enjoyed acclaimed off-Broadway runs, went on to garner praise as HBO specials. But not since Lily Tomlin's tour de force, "Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," 10 years ago, has one person alone delivered such a virtuoso performance on the Broadway stage.
"I saw that show twice," Mr. Leguizamo says. "It definitely influenced me." But unlike the Tomlin show, which was fictional, "Freak" adds another element, from Richard Pryor. "He always spoke honestly, revealing personal, raw things from his life. He dealt with the pain he grew up with, but still made it very, very funny."
Leguizamo guides the audience through moments in his younger life, from the hilarious time he accidentally snapped off the antenna of his father's prized television set, and the boastings of young teens at a house party, to sexual traumas and an emotionally wrenching relationship with his parents.
The energetic actor notes that this show, like his previous works, "presents characters from a Latin point of view, Latin interests, Latin culturally specific things, and then translates them so that there's larger appeal to audiences - black, white, and Asian. That's my goal."
Audiences approve. The production has already been extended beyond its announced run, and when the Broadway stint ends, a national tour will begin. "Basically," he continues, explaining why audiences of all backgrounds keep coming, "it's the story of not fitting in, being an outsider, feeling freakish wherever you go. And it's also about learning that you can overcome things, no matter what kind of childhood you had."
Leguizamo's career has included a diverse range of roles on the big screen in such films as "Romeo and Juliet," "Executive Decision," "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," and the coming "Doctor Doolittle." His variety sketch comedy show "House of Buggin' " ran for one season on Fox three years ago.
He says it is important "to portray Latinos in upscale positions, roles that run the gamut of experience, and not just the marginalized segments of society. On television, it's a lot better but still not up to par. We're 12 percent of the population, but you don't see that on television."
Leguizamo's ambition for future film roles, "ones that I get to create and produce, will be to do for Latinos what Woody Allen did for Jewish people in films like 'Annie Hall,' bringing everybody into that realm, holding it up proudly, and still showing its weaknesses, too. You want to bring in the unique aspects of the culture."