By Keri Tombazian
In live theatre, few things are sweeter than being able to announce on opening night that the run of a show is being extended. No amount of critical acclaim can push a show into an extended run. The bottom line is audience response—and oh, how the audience responded to the spectacle of, story, swagger, song, and dance at the opening night revival of Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum. Hoots and howls of cheer sparked at the very moment that house lights began to dim.
Waiting for the curtain to rise, my husband, Thom, and I chatted about the original 1978 production of Zoot Suit when who should take his seat next to me but the acclaimed actor who originated the role of El Pachuco: Edward James Olmos. At intermission, Mr. Olmos was generous with praise for the production and did not mask the apparent emotion of taking in the very show that gave him his bounce into the spotlight and set his career in motion nearly four decades ago. What a presence.
Mr. Olmos reflected that the primary difference between the 1978 world premiere and this revival is, “…we were actors who could dance; these are dancers who can act.” Indeed, if the footwork in the film La La Land left you wanting, then you will be dazzled by this fine-footed ensemble. Choreographer Maria Torres deftly nods to the jazz-inspired swing motifs of wartime American dance yet pushes her dancers past those constructs to express the mounting rebellion, oppression, and defiance of the story in an explosion of movement.
Incorporating both symbolism and realism, playwright Luis Valdez tells a fictionalized version of the historical events surrounding the 1942 “Sleepy Lagoon Murder” of José Diaz and the violent 1943 Los Angeles Zoot Suit race riots. Convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce) is attended to by the mythical character El Pachuco (Demian Bichir). To Henry, he is part Diablo, part conscience, part comforter. To the audience, El Pachuco is narrator, Greek Chorus, and comic relief.
Ponce brings everything necessary to a tragic hero: handsome good looks, fine voice, and a clear understanding of the hero’s inner battle and struggle to emerge beyond his lesser self. Ponce never pales next to the larger than life El Pachuco, yet the actor stays planted in realism.
From the moment he bursts through a clever newspaper drop and begins to weave the tale, Birchir dominates the stage, never by bullying, but by inhabiting each complex facet of El Pachuco with unselfconscious boldness. Birchir’s timing brings laughs throughout; and in turn, gasps at his sobering depiction of the humiliation of violence.
Ann Closs-Farley’s extravagance of color, texture, and draping is the kind of realization of style by which awards are won. Beautiful costumes.
Mr. Olmos also noted that the revival of Zoot Suit reflected a bigger budget than the one he inhabited nearly four decades ago and, indeed, the budget was well spent in all aspects of design from Christopher Acebo’s bright scenic design, to Pablo Santiago’s spot-on lighting design, to the clean multilayered sound design by Philip G. Allen.
Bravo to a terrific ensemble, directed by Valdez with fidelity to what was, in 1978, a groundbreaking piece of highly stylized theatre.
It was surprising to hear Mr. Olmos reflect that the dialogue has not been updated, because—although the characters and circumstances are taken from the front pages of newspapers of 1942 — the themes of the show are as relevant as if taken from any given newsfeed of today.
I highly recommend Zoot Suit, playing now through March 26th, 2017. Get your tickets HERE.