Nearly 40 years after its world premiere, “Zoot Suit’s” look at prejudice and racial tension looked fresh and relevant in today’s politically troubled times in its return to the Los Angeles stage the week of Feb. 16, 2017. In celebration of the Mark Taper Forum’s 50th season, the song-filled play, which was originally commissioned and developed by Center Theatre Group for that venue, returned in this dazzling revival.
The play reenacts a turbulent chapter in the city’s history. “Zoot Suit” was inspired by the infamous Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. During the period featured, wearing a Zoot Suit (a broad-shouldered long jacket and overly baggy pants) served as a sartorial, in-your-face fashion statement for Chicano youths. The show touches on the so-called Zoot Suit riots, ethnic identity, and the suspicion/intolerance of immigrants in 1940s Southern California. (Noticeably, the white characters are reduced to stereotypes). At a time when there is turmoil over immigration, talk of “bad hombres,” and other signs of societal intolerance in current times.
Writer and director Luis Valdez, now 76, is back at the helm for this production, starring Demian Bichir (2012 best actor Oscar nominee for “A Better Life,” also known for “Weeds,” “The Hateful Eight,” and “The Bridge”). This production is also a bit of a reunion; Rose Portillo and Daniel Valdez (who is Luis’s brother) portrayed the young lovers Henry Reyna and Della Barrios when the play debuted and now play Henry’s parents.
The play opens with the mythic “El Pachuco (Bichir)” who looms larger than life on stage at all times as the narrator, conscience, and sometimes threatening presence. The role could be a caricature, but Bichir gives it the perfect mix of devilish charm and exaggerated swagger. He speaks a hybrid of English, Spanish, and slang that may not be readily understood by audience members, but the gist is clear. Bichir sings and dances too.
El Pachuco tells the audience, “What you are about to see is a combination of fact and fantasy.” Then, other characters take the stage, including the other main character, Henry Reyna (played by Matias Ponce),
Henry accompanies his girlfriend Della (Jeanine Mason, who was the youngest competitor to win the TV competition “So You Think You Can Dance”), members of his 38th Street Gang, and his younger brother (Andres Ortiz) to a dance. They encounter the rival Downey Gang. After Rudy sparks a fight between the gangs, the 38th Street Gang leaves the dance.
Della and Henry go to Sleepy Lagoon, a popular hang-out (and make-out) spot for Mexican-American youth. While there, they hear music from the nearby Williams’ Ranch and decide to go with friends to see if a party is in progress. However, the Downey Gang has been harassing those assembled so they attack thinking the Downey crowd returned. The fight leads to a death. Henry is thrown in jail on suspicion of murder along with his friends: Smiley (Raul Cardona), Joey (Oscar Camacho), and Tommy (Caleb Foote), a white boy raised in the barrio.
The Press, who are capitalizing on wartime fear mongering to sell newspapers, blows the charges out of proportion. Newspaper headlines keep the audience aware of the World War raging as well as the fighting in the California streets.
The judge is equally prejudicial in approaching the trial. In spite of the efforts of their lawyer (Brian Abraham), and leftist civil-rights crusader Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont), they are found guilty.
Galvanized Zoot Suit wearers and others stage riots in Los Angeles and neighboring cities while the gang is incarcerated. On appeal, Henry and his friends are eventually released from jail.
This Production of “Zoot Suit”
The cast is excellent in this production. They particularly sparkle in the musical numbers and shine in Maria Torres’ jubilant jitterbug-based choreography. The staging, by Christopher Acebo, enables the large cast to comfortably move around the Mark Taper’s small stage.
The show’s timing could not be better with heightened focus on race and immigrant intolerance. Henry’s lawyer, with Adolf Hitler in mind, comments during the trial on “a society now at war against the forces of racial intolerance and totalitarian injustice.” A message enthusiastically received by the audience.
In 1978, after playing for nearly a year in L.A., “Zoot Suit” went on to become Broadway’s first Chicano theatrical production. While not successful in New York then, many credit the show with paving the way for “Hamilton” and other works.
As when the play debuted, ticket demand for “Zoot Suit” during its return to L.A. is extremely strong. The Taper has extended the show’s six-week run by two weeks. Performances will now continue through March 26, 2017, at the Mark Taper Forum.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Performance Feb. 12
Center Theatre Group: “ZOOT SUIT” OPENS SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2017 AT CENTER THEATRE GROUP/MARK TAPER FORUM
Los Angeles Times: ‘Zoot Suit’: How Latino theater born in the farm fields changed L.A. theater forever
New York Times: ‘Zoot Suit,’ a Pioneering Chicano Play, Comes Full Circle
Featured Image Courtesy of Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum
Inline Image Courtesy of Craig Schwartz