Downtown Los Angeles explodes with music, dance, and dramatic fireworks as the Mark Taper Forum celebrates its 50th-Anniversary Season with a spectacular, timelier-than-ever revival of Luis Valdez’s legendary Zoot Suit.

If only as reminder that cuanto más cambian las cosas, más siguen igual, Zoot Suit more than justifies its “hottest ticket in town” status, recounting in these increasingly racially divided times the true story of one of Los Angeles’s (if not the United States’) most flagrant miscarriages of justice.

Like the events that inspired Jason Robert Brown’s Parade and its fellow Broadway musical The Scottsboro Boys (both CTG hits), Zoot Suit turns historical fact into thrilling musical theater, taking as its own inspiration the 1942 kangaroo court that tried twenty-two Chicanos for a “gang murder” that may not even have been a murder at all, simply because (like the then recently interned Japanese-Americans) they looked suspiciously “un-American,” particularly garbed in the fancy feathered hats, broad-shouldered mid-calf-length coats, and baggy pegged trousers that identified them as Zoot Suiters.

More significant than the details of what the press dubbed “The Sleepy Lagoon Murder” or of the “Zoot Suit Riots” that followed is the resulting “People v. Zammora et al” trial, one whose blatantly racist judge insisted not only that the defendants remain pomaded and zoot-suited throughout but that they each rise whenever named, even damningly so, because how else could the jury tell one from another?

From this set of historical facts, shocking and yet sadly not all that shocking in today’s post-election climate, playwright-director Valdez, songwriter Lalo Guerrero, and choreographer Maria Torres have created so supremely theatrical a play-with-music, it’s no wonder the 1978 World Premiere sold out the Taper for four months before playing another nine at Hollywood’s Aquarius.

Combining intense drama, vivid fantasy sequences, and some of the most excitingly choreographed and performed dance numbers west of The Great White Way, Valdez’s ground-breaking play proves more electrifying than ever thanks to a sensational cast and a production design that could scarcely have been imagined in the lower-tech ‘70s.

Performances are uniformly sensational, beginning with Matias Ponce’s handsome, sexy, sensitive 38th-Street Gang leader Henry Reyna, often his worst enemy thanks to El Pachuco, the zoot-suited diablo on Henry’s shoulder played with abundant panache by Best Actor Oscar nominee Demian Bichir.

Latino theater treasures Daniel Valdez and Rose Portillo (Henry and his girlfriend Della in the original Taper production) bring dignity and gravitas to Henry’s proud but beleaguered parents (Valdez doubling as musical director), while Stephani Candelaria and Andres Ortiz breathe fire into his siblings Lupe and Rudy.

As Henry’s fellow 38th-Street Gang members, Oscar Camacho (Joey Castro), Raul Cardona (“Smiley” Torres), and Caleb Foote (honorary Chicano Tommy Roberts) do equally dynamic work as do their female counterparts Melinna Bobadilla (Bertha Villareal), Rocío López (Elena Torres), and Jeanine Mason (Della Barrios).

Heading the accused men’s defense team is the towering (both literally and figuratively) Brian Abraham as Arab-American George Shearer, with the stunning Tiffany Dupont (as Russian-Jewish immigrants’ daughter Alice Bloomfield) providing passionate support (along with romantic complications for Henry, who must choose between Alice and his neighborhood novia Della).

Playing racial-slurs-spouting bad guys to horrifically hiss-worthy effect are Tom G. McMahon (Press), Richard Steinmetz (Lieutenant Edwards, Judge F.W. Charles, Prison Guard), and Bradford Tatum (Sergeant Smith, Bosun’s Mate, Bailiff).

Perhaps most exciting of all is Zoot Suit’s triple-threat ensemble—Mariela Arteaga (La Pachuca Hoba), Fiona Cheung (La Pachuca Manchuka), Holly Hyman (La Pachuca Lil Blue), dance captain Kimberlee Kidd (Guera), Michael Naydoe Pindo (Ragman, Cub Reporter, Sailor), Gilbert Saldivar (Rafas, Marine), Evan Strand (Swabbie), and dance captain Raphael Thomas (Newsboy)—who along with their fellow cast members execute Torres’s salsa jitterbug moves to pulse-pounding, Broadway-caliber effect.

Scenic designer Christopher Acebo and projection designer David Murakami join forces to bring WWII-era Los Angeles to vivid life, from the still distinctive City Hall skyline to the authentic L.A. newspaper headlines trumpeting war and trial news daily. (The multipurpose newspaper stacks are a neat touch.) Pablo Santiago’s lighting design is as vibrant as lighting designs get, and sound designer Philip G. Allen fills the Taper with crystal-clear effects and musical mix.

Most ravishing among production design elements are Ann Closs-Farley’s period costume stunners, from El Pachuco’s blood-red-and-black gear to zoot suit after zoot suit after zoot suit to the Pachuca Trio’s ‘40s-style girl-group glamour to more conservative but still striking everyday wear, with Jessica Mills’ era-perfect costumes topping head after head. (Kudos too to fight director Steve Rankin for some realistic gang warfare.)

Kinan Valdez is associate director. Casting is by Rosalinda Morales, Pauline O’con, CSA, and Candido Cornejo, Jr., CSA. David S. Franklin is production stage manager. Zoot Suit is presented in association with El Teatro Campesino. Phillip Esparza is executive producer.

Like a pair of currently-running out-of-town visitors, Zoot Suit celebrates live theater’s power to bring literature and/or history to supremely imaginative life. That this is a Los Angeles-cast-directed-and-designed production is delciouso icing on the cake.

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Mark Taper Forum, 35 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
February 12, 2017
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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