OnStage Los Angeles Critic
It is not every day that a hat receives entrance applause at the theater. However, it is also not every day that Zoot Suit returns to Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, the very theater that commissioned and hosted its world premiere in 1978. Written by Luis Valdez with music by Lalo Guerrero, it went on to become the first Chicano play on Broadway and inspired a film of the same name. Politically charged and still relevant to a shocking degree thanks to current events, this vibrant feast for the senses represents the very best of what Los Angeles theater has to offer.
Zoot Suit tells the true story of Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce) and the 38th Street Gang. One night in 1942, the gang gets into an altercation at a party near Sleepy Lagoon, which functioned as a “lovers lane” of sorts, and a man ends up murdered. In an unprecedented legal move, 22 members of the gang, including Henry, are charged for the same murder, a witch hunt directly tied to the Chicano identity of most of the gang members, many of whom flaunt their culture by wearing ostentatious zoot suits. They lose the trial and are all sentenced to life in prison, but thanks to the efforts of a hard-working lawyer, George (Brian Abraham), and a reporter turned activist, Alice (Tiffany Dupont), the gang is eventually released from jail after winning an appeal. The play’s final scenes focus on Henry coming to terms with the changes that have taken place in both his family and the world during his incarceration and choosing between his old flame, Della (Jeanine Mason), whom he proposed to prior to the murder, and Alice, with whom he developed a relationship while in jail.
All of the proceedings are overseen by an enigmatic character known as El Pachuco (Demian Bichir), an outrageously well-dressed man seen only by Henry and the audience who represents Henry’s alter-ego while also serving as a singing, dancing emcee. The production features elaborate musical numbers with fantastic dancing, choreographed to perfection by Maria Torres. The energy level on opening night, both on stage and in the audience, was through the roof, and every aspect of this monumental return seemed incredibly well thought out. The lighting (Pablo Santiago) and sound design (Philip G. Allen) were flawless and the ensemble of 25 multi-talented actors was more than up to the task of presenting this intricate piece.
An interesting aspect of this production is that a decent chunk of dialogue is in Spanish. As a non-Spanish speaker, I did not ultimately feel like I missed any plot-crucial information, but I did feel that I missed out on some of the jokes that a large portion of the audience was reacting to. But, this play was not written for me—in its 1978 debut it was the first professionally produced Chicano play, and as such, that is the audience it celebrates. What I found most surprising was how politically relevant Zoot Suit, which was written in the 1970s about the 1940s, still feels in 2017. In act one, George gives an impassioned speech as part of his closing arguments at the trial in which he singles out the dangers of totalitarianism and the targeting of people based on their ethnicity. It almost felt as if the air was sucked out of the theater for a brief moment before everyone started to applaud.
Center Theatre Group of course had no idea the events that would transpire over these past few months when they announced this production, but it feels remarkably timely. While the way the play is presented to the audience may not be exactly universal, many aspects of the characters’ specific experiences can be likened to the persecution of other minorities throughout history. The Holocaust is mentioned during the play, and Henry’s brother Rudy (Andres Ortiz) is attacked and stripped of his zoot suit during the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. It is impossible not to draw parallels to the recent attempted Muslim ban, which among others singled out those who wear burkas and hijabs.
The ending of Zoot Suit is a bit unconventional, in line with the dreamlike quality that encompasses the entire piece. While I could have done without an extended resolution of the somewhat half-baked love triangle at the very end, this play and specifically this production are achievements to be celebrated. You will laugh, you will think, and you will dance in your seat.
Zoot Suit runs at the Mark Taper Forum through March 26th. Tickets range from $20-$109 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org.