To be a theater reviewer in Los Angeles is, to some degree, to work in the shadow of Gordon Davidson’s near-mythic 1978 production of Zoot Suit, the dazzling original musical written and directed by Luis Valdez, the equally legendary founder of the 1960s guerrilla theater troupe Teatro Campesino. It's the L.A. show that everyone knows but few have seen.
Now, nearly 40 years later, Center Theatre Group has brought it back in a sumptuous, Valdez-directed revival that allows a new generation of theatergoers to experience firsthand what all the fuss was about.
And it’s hard to imagine the 1978 Zoot Suit looking and sounding better. Set designer Christopher Acebo and lighting designer Pablo Santiago have created a multitiered playing space with a 1940s downtown Los Angeles skyline, which easily transitions from a candy-colored showcase for choreographer Maria Torres’ stunning swing dance numbers to a noir-lit fog of Venetian blinds and shadows for Valdez’s darker drama about race and immigrant aspiration. Throughout it all, costumer Ann Closs-Farley’s wild-style assortment of colorfully outlandish zoot suits, gold chains, streamlined and feathered fedoras and fancifully cut short dresses is cannily suggestive of the spirit rather than the strictly accurate street fashion of the play's period setting.
But the real surprise comes in between the dance numbers. Zoot Suit is technically less of a musical drama than it is a drama with music, with the singing chores on the show’s five Lalo Guerrero songs (under Daniel Valdez's lush musical direction) handled exclusively by the gravelly Demian Bichir as the phantasmagorical El Pachuco, with backup vocals by Fiona Cheung, Holly Hyman and Mariela Arteaga.
The based-on-a-true-story plot follows 38th Street gang leader Henry Reyna (the excellent Matias Ponce) on the eve of his enlistment in the U.S. Navy to serve in World War II, when a clash with a rival gang at the local lovers lane, Sleepy Lagoon, leads to a killing at a party. Henry and three of his gang members (Oscar Camacho, Caleb Foote and Raul Cardona) are put on trial and, in an outrageously racist travesty of justice, sentenced to life in prison.
The trial publicity inflames the community, and as the gang’s legal appeals team (Brian Abraham and Tiffany Dupont) works for their release, Los Angeles erupts in the show’s central set-piece — the violent clashes between zoot suit–wearing pachucos, cops and U.S. servicemen that became known as the Zoot Suit Riots.
Anchored by the magnetically enigmatic Bichir, the entire ensemble delivers a precision performance in Valdez’s mix of poignant drama, affecting romance and excoriating political burlesque. Too soon after the electrifying spectacles of the opening dance numbers, however, an odd sense of bathos settles onto the evening.
It is only during the play’s singularly incendiary highpoint that a clue emerges to what’s amiss. Abraham, rising to deliver his summation as the communist defense lawyer George Shearer, refers to “a society that is now at war against racist intolerance.” On opening night, the audience exploded in cheers at the words in a release of pent-up anxiety but only partially met expectation.
What neither CTG nor Valdez could have predicted when the revival was originally green-lit was that Donald Trump would be elected president and that what happens onstage could be so effectively upstaged by the administration's anti-immigrant rhetoric and ramped-up deportations and arrests, which have transformed the city into a combatlike zone of fear, anger and frustration for its Latino majority.
A more lyrically agile production might have seized the moment and retooled itself as a galvanizing work of political resistance. What Valdez delivers, although entertaining, is more of a highly polished, valedictory capstone to a life in the theater. Rather than exhilaration, one leaves the theater with the mournful sense of an opportunity lost.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through March 26. (213) 628-2772, CenterTheatreGroup.org.