'Zoot Suit': Theater Review

Zoot Suit - Production Still-Center Theatre Group -Mark Taper Forum-H 2017
Courtesy of Craig Schwartz
Underrated in its day, but still timely almost four decades later.

Director Luis Valdez leads Demian Bichir and stars from the original in this dazzling revival at the Mark Taper Forum, where the show premiered in 1978 before making history as the first Chicano Broadway musical.

When Zoot Suit premiered on Broadway in 1979, it made history as the first Chicano musical to do so. For director Luis Valdez, it was a career achievement — a crossover hit that delivered themes of racial profiling and social justice to a mainstream audience, with a healthy dose of romance, melodrama and jazz-age boogie. After having run nearly a year in Los Angeles, it closed on Broadway in less than a month. The new revival at the Mark Taper Forum (where it premiered in 1978) seems more relevant than ever after last weekend’s ICE roundups and growing concerns over social injustice. But while Zoot Suit is rich in of-the-moment themes regarding identity and tolerance, it is richer in humor, heart and fleet-footed dancing.

Despite its abbreviated run on Broadway, the show launched the career of Edward James Olmos, who garnered a Tony nomination for his portrayal of the mythic Pachuco, and later starred in the 1980 movie (also directed by Valdez). Taking over for Olmos is Demian Bichir (a 2012 best actor Oscar nominee for A Better Life, next up in Alien: Covenant). He carries himself with similar swagger, but adopts a low, raspy tone that might render him voiceless by the end of the run. Pachuco is an archetype who celebrates machismo even as he exposes the insecurity at its heart. While he is a devil on the shoulder of Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce), leader of the 38th Street gang, he is also a mentor who engages Henry in a complicated relationship connected to manhood, identity, trust and finally letting go.

The timing of events could not be worse for Henry, who is transitioning away from his sordid past and joining the Navy. A police sweep nets him and fellow gang members — Smiley (Raul Cardona), who never smiles; Tommy (Caleb Foote), a white boy raised in the barrio; and Joey (Oscar Comacho), a class clown — in a search for the murder of a young man at Sleepy Lagoon, a popular swimming hole.

The plot blends musical numbers with flashbacks to paint in what happened the night of the murder, wisely avoiding the stasis of courtroom drama and prison life. Valdez cleverly places his story amid real-life events, the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, which made headlines in 1942 and was used as a pretense to crackdown on young Latinos, profiling them by the zoot suits they wore. The case galvanized the community, which ignited a year later when a fistfight between servicemen on leave and local zoot-suiters turned into a race riot, sparking subsequent uprisings in numerous cities.

As Reyna, Ponce is the heart of the play, struggling to maintain dignity in a system that disdains him. The arrest keeps him from the war, but it also keeps him from his beloved Della (Jeanine Mason), whom he intends to marry. In time, that relationship is sidetracked by Henry’s correspondence with leftist journalist Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont), who advocates for his release.

Rose Portillo, as Henry’s mother, returns to the show after portraying Della in the original cast. No doubt she and Daniel Valdez, who starred as Henry on Broadway, are key to making their ensemble scenes so polished.

Regarded as the father of Chicano music, composer Lalo Guerrero experienced the events depicted. His songs “Zoot Suit Boogie” and “Chucos Suaves” fit comfortably with noted swing classics like “In the Mood” and Harry James’ “Sleepy Lagoon,” inspired by the real-life court case. The sprawling cast moves effortlessly through Maria Torres’ jubilant jitterbug-based choreography, while Christopher Acebo’s sparse, practical design, including a dimension-adding upstage riser, leaves surprisingly ample room on the Taper’s modest-sized stage.

A monumental figure in Chicano culture, Valdez and his El Teatro Campesino gave voice to farmworkers during the Cesar Chavez-led strikes of the 1960s. In subsequent years, his art grew beyond the fields, becoming instrumental in the Chicano identity movement. With Zoot Suit, he drew parallels between social injustices of the 1940s and those of his own era. With this revival, he shows us how little has changed.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, downtown Los Angeles
Cast: Brian Abraham, Mariela Arteaga, Demian Bicher, Melinna Bobadilla, Oscar Camacho, Stephani Candelaria, Raul Cardona, Fiona Cheung, Tiffany Dupont, Caleb Foote, Holly Hyman, Kimberlee Kidd, Rocio Lopez, Jeanine Mason, Tom G. McMahon, Andres Ortiz, Michael Naydoe Pinedo, Matias Ponce, Rose Portillo, Gilbert Saldivar, Richard Steinmetz, Evan Strand, Bradford Tatum, Raphael Thomas, Daniel Valdez
Director-writer: Luis Valdez
Music: Lalo Guerrero
Set designer: Christopher Acebo
Costume designer: Ann Closs-Farley
Lighting designer: Pablo Santiago
Sound designer: Philip G. Allen
Musical director: Daniel Valdez
Projection designer: David Murakami
Choreographer: Maria Torres
Presented by Center Theatre Group, in association with El Teatro Campesino