Reviewed by Julio Martinez
The Mark Taper Forum
Through March 26
Luis Valdez’s chronicle of the historic early 1940’s “Sleepy Lagoon” murder case, Zoot Suit, originally premiered at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in 1978. It has returned to the venue with an updated book, some impressive onstage effects, and an energetic support ensemble that outshines the vocally undernourished Demián Bichir.
The original production went to Broadway in 1979. Being judged under the criteria of a Broadway musical rather than a “play with music,” it did not fare well. The current production is definitely not a musical, despite the energetic staging and list of songs. The show offers such Swing anthems as “Perdido,” “In the Mood,” and “Bugle Call Rag” to evoke the music popular during World War II. Also in evidence are tunes by local Latino songwriting legend Lalo Guerrero (“Chucos Suaves,” “Vamos a Bailar,” “Marihjuana Boogie”) and by music director Daniel Valdez (“Handball” and “Henry and Della Theme”), which establish the ethnic tone for the evening — even despite Maria Torres’s gringo-esque choreography. (East L.A. Latinos did not swing like Anglos — they did not do a box step Rumba as displayed in this show. Also, the Mambo did not become known in Los Angeles until the early 1950s.)
Luis Valdez creates a comically unfair court trial pitting the monumentally biased actions of Judge F.W. Charles (Richard Steinmetz) against the staunch efforts of the defenders, attorney George Shearer (Brian Abraham) and left-wing journalist Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupant). It is a forgone conclusion that the trial would lead to second degree murder convictions and sentences of life imprisonment at San Quentin.
Bichir strains his way through the strutting antics of the show’s narrator and spiritual leader, El Pachuco. Bichir is so cognizant of projecting the growling manhood of the East L.A. icon of “pachuquismo,” that he swallows his voice, barely projecting past the first few rows of the Forum’s seating.
What Bichir does manage to project is gifted comic timing as he chides, bullies, and inspires the local zoot suit-clad leader of the 38th Street gang, Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce). He does so, to not only be a leader of men but to also establish an identity that will inspire his friends and neighbors to stand up for themselves during a time of intensely volatile race relations.
A major plus to this production is the dynamic established in Reyna’s relationship with his family, led by Rose Portillo as Henry’s mother and Daniel Valdez as his father. In the 1978 staging, Daniel portrayed Henry Reyna and Portillo portrayed his girlfriend Della. In this production Portillo and Valdez solidify the rock-solid familial bond that is the true basis of young Henry’s strength of character. Meanwhile, this Della is portrayed by Jeanine Mason, who is determined and strong-willed. She loves Henry, but is resolved to walk away from him if he is not willing to match her commitment.
One element that works so well is Luis Valdez’s incorporation of the true events of the “Sleepy Lagoon” media fiasco and the subsequent 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, in which carousing servicemen violently attacked Mexican American youth. Valdez, who also directs, makes great use of the prominent media outlet of the time, projecting blaring headlines of the countless daily newspapers that flourished in Los Angeles. This provides constant updates of the alluring case, in which Reyna and his fellow gang members Smiley (Raul Cardona), Tommy (Caleb Foote), and Joey (Oscar Comacho) faced murder charges and the possibility of lifetime prison sentences. One cannot help likening the proceedings to our current state, in which racial profiling, social injustice, and ICE roundups fuel fears of mass incarcerations and deportations, and how they are publicized.
CTG’s Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave, Downtown L.A.; Thu.-Fri., 2:30 & 8p.m.; Sat., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Mar 26. (213) 628-2772; or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.