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As celebrities go, Leguizamo is no sloth

Stage and screen star says his fifth one-man show, which plays at the Paramount this week, is his most autobiographical

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

The first thing you might think when you see that John Leguizamo is on his fifth one-man show is ... why?

Seriously. Five.

"Mambo Mouth," "Spic-O-Rama," "Freak," and "Sexaholix ... A Love Story," and now "Ghetto Klown," his new semi-autobiographical one-man show, running for three nights this weekend at the Paramount Theatre.

Here's the thing: John Leguizamo has had a genuinely odd, diverse career.

Think about it for a second: He is famous. Legitimately famous. Not George Clooney-famous, but not My-life-on-the-D-list famous either.

He is not famous for being famous, either. This isn't a Kardashian we're talking about.

But can you remember the first time you saw him?

Was it his groundbreaking but short-lived TV show "House of Buggin'," aka "The Latino ‘In Living Color' "?

Was it as the murderous up-and-comer Benny Blanco "from the Bronx" in "Carlito's Way"? Was it as the drag queen Chi-Chi Rodriguez in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar"? Was it as Vinny in Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam"? (Uh, probably not.)

Even your kids know him as the voice of Sid the Sloth ("THid the Thloth!") in the "Ice Age" movies.

You have been looking at or listening to John Leguizamo for more than 20 years. Add all of this stuff up — the sketch comedy, the dancing, the dramatic acting, the comedic acting, the voice-over work, the monologues — and what you get is something that just isn't around all that much anymore.

John Leguizamo is an entertainer.

I reach Leguizamo, who looks (on the screen) and sounds (over the phone) far younger than his 46 years, between rehearsals for "Ghetto Klown."

"In some ways, it's a culmination of all the other shows," he says. "This is the first one where I can totally be myself. I think it's more inspiring and uplifting than the others. I talk a lot about career problems, managers and agents and the b.s. of Hollywouldn't." (We chose to forgive him this hideous pun.)

Leguizamo characterizes "Ghetto Klown" as a "reality show on myself." But that could apply to most of his one-man work, especially the later performances. There is an arc to his one-man shows, from the broader discussions of cultural stereotypes in "Spic-O-Rama" to the more personal theater-as-therapy work of "Sexaholix."

" ‘Ghetto Klown' is about being in show business and really doing that story justice," Leguizamo says. "Most of the shows about people and their careers are too much fluff, they won't really discuss what went wrong. I wanted to take that microscope and turn it on myself, explore the little mistakes that drive you, that make you what you are.

"We all think we're all wronged and we're all past criticism, most of the time, in our belief center. The reality is not like that. A lot of this story is about how incredibly self-involved and selfish I was, about depression and how to get out of it, and how gullible I was about a lot of things and the costs on relationships."

The show started as a series of lectures back in 2007. " ‘Ghetto Klown' started as a talk to college students," Leguizamo says. "And the kids were digging it. I took my résumé and put it on index cards, I would drink a lot to get loose, and just talk about all this stuff for two hours. I would run home quickly and write it down before I passed out."

Leguizamo workshopped the show all over the place, from La Jolla, Calif., to Philadelphia to Louisville, Ky., even doing a version at Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival.

Last year, the show played Broadway from March to July at the Lyceum Theatre. Leguizamo received an Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk Award for it.

And while you may see filmed versions of the stage shows on HBO, don't expect them to be converted to movie-movies any time soon.

"They're so created for the stage," Leguizamo says. "The whole thing is about this live, audio/visual experience, it's all created for a live experience."

He even recently took it to London for a series of performances at the Charing Cross Theatre, the first time he's performed one of his one-man shows across the pond.

"That was great," Leguizamo says. "Adam Ant came, the Gorillaz came, guys from the Clash came, and they really did dig the show," (It should be noted that the last two names are both British artists known for their fondness for and incorporation of American hip-hop, a crucial part of the John Leguizamo story.)

"British audiences are very quiet, very polite, they don't laugh like Americans. They do love the story, but they're not very generous with standing ovations," Leguizamo says. "New York audiences tend to lose their mind at the cultural references, which they all know, and I don't change them for the road, so it becomes like a National Geographic special for the audience.

"British audiences are not uncomfortable with the real dramatic, dangerous spots in the show, but Americans tend to giggle a little at real emotions. Those can be very unsettling for an audience."

Then again, this entertainer, this guy who can do a little bit of everything (the opening dance number to "Sexaholix," broken down by era — "Old School!" "High School!" "Mexican" "Colombian" — still stuns) is dealing with show business, one of the roughest businesses of all. Leguizamo wants to get into that in "Ghetto Klown."

"The roughness because you have people who are artists or aspiring to be artists," Leguizamo says. "To be an artist is to reveal yourself, to be as vulnerable and open as possible. That leads you to be easily exploited. Most businesses are about business. That is not true with art. An artist wants to create something that illuminates and has some social content and adds some value in the world. That goes for every art form out there. An artist is a little bit beyond the material world and people like that are so easy to manipulate."

jgross@statesman.com

'John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown'