Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
“Zoot Suit” is Back: a window on a forgotten past returns to the Taper
“Zoot Suit” is now extended until March 2, when it absolutely must close.
The return of Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking musical “Zoot Suit” to the Mark Taper Forum is less of a theatrical milestone than it is a major cultural event. Centered on the actual events revolving around the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots – both “forgotten” parts of Los Angeles’ World War II history until this show opened in 1978 – the tale celebrates the culture of Mexican-American Los Angeles during that repressive time with a gravelly pride.
Still, one must stand back from the importance of the vehicle to also examine the production itself. Directed as before by its creator, Luis Valdez has worked to keep it true to the original in many strategic ways, from the carved newspaper opening to the iconic pose of El Pachuco – the symbol of Chicano masculinity which has remained central in Los Angeles’ Latino consciousness.
The blend of culture and language is also still central. Interestingly, this has always included a mixture of languages: Spanish, local slang, and English. For those who are familiar with all of these, and many Angelinos are, there is an immediate connection. For those who are less familiar, there may be a certain disconnect but also a chance to bump up against a vibrant part of the L.A. community in a most enthusiastic way. When the show was first produced, the program included a glossary of terms for the uninitiate. That is missing this time, but most of the audience may not need it.
Told through a combination of fact, fantasy and music, the story is elemental Los Angeles. During the period of World War II, a series of events led to the arrest of over 100 Mexican-American young men for the death of a single man near a reservoir euphemistically called Sleepy Lagoon. Their trial was less about a single murder and more about a condemnation of an entire people and an entire lifestyle, and is now well documented as a gross miscarriage of justice. The fight to defend the young men, and then to overturn their convictions, provides a backdrop for a love letter to a way of being and an innate toughness which carried a people through this very difficult time.
The cast divides into those playing the historical figures of the story, and those representing an elemental force which stood up against the inequities of the time period. Matias Ponce is Henry Reyna, the leader of a “boy gang” whose entire crew ends up arrested for something they didn’t do. As such, Ponce underscores Henry’s resolute sense of self, his sense of family, and his ability to keep himself together in the midst of a nearly hopeless situation. Standouts among Henry’s fellow zoot suiters include Raul Cardona exuding a particular maturity as the married father “Smiley,” Oscar Camacho as the impulsive Joey, and Caleb Foote as Tommy, the non-Hispanic member of the gang.
Melinna Bobadilla radiates with an innate innocence as Henry’s girlfriend, while Stephani Candelaria and Andres Ortiz make Henry’s siblings a study in contrasts. Brian Abraham gives a gravitas to the lawyer whose ardent defense of his young and mistreated clients seems as potent today as it does in its historical context. Tiffany Dupont, as the woman who coordinates communications between the legal team, walks that fine line for any woman of the period between femininity and official status.
But surrounding all of this, and more, are the more symbolic figures, and their presence ends up defining much of the action. Fiona Cheung, Holly Hyman and Mariela Arteaga form the singing Pachuca Trio, a multi-ethnic representation of L.A. itself. And, of course, there is Demian Bichir as El Pachuco, that central narrator and representation of the larger theme of the piece. Bichir has the moves and style down pat, though the directorial choice to have him speak in a gravelly voice (except when imitating others) has the side effect of making him often very difficult to understand. This is a pity as he is the glue holding the show and this production together.
The music, an eclectic mix of big band hits of the era with original songs and instrumentals by Lalo Guerrero and Daniel Valdez, and the upbeat swing choreography of Maria Torres add to the sometimes frenetic tone of the show, which proves energetic from start to finish. One should not really call this a musical, in the classic sense, in that there are no soulful songster moments but rather an undercurrent which creates the atmosphere of time and place.
All of which is not news to those who remember “Zoot Suit” from its first incarnation 39 years ago. For a new generation, reviving this story – which is simplified history, to some extent, but important nonetheless – puts modern struggles of identity and inclusion into context more startlingly than one would wish. However, despite a stated sense that this piece of theater is intended to speak to the larger issue of the Hispanic/Latino story in the US, it remains ultimately a story of Los Angeles and the particular consciousness of a large portion of our community. There it is received as golden, but one wonders how well that translates to the larger sphere.
What: “Zoot Suit” When: now extended through March 28, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $109 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org