KPBS AIRDATE: October 8, 1997
MUSIC, up and under: “Zoot Suit”
Call it the “drapes” of wrath; “Zoot Suit” is back. The clothes were defiant style-setters; the dramatic musical was an audacious groundbreaker. The zoot suit, or “drape shape,” was popular in the early years of World War II, high-styled with its high-waisted, baggy-legged, tight-ankled pants; lengthy, square-shouldered jacket; pancake hat and long, decorative chain. The suit presented a profile of protest and dignity. In the words of playwright Luis Valdez, “it was the secret fantasy of every vato… to put on the zoot suit and play the myth.” The mythical model was El Pachuco, the macho ‘40s Chicano created by Valdez in 1978, in the record-breaking Los Angeles production that went on to become the only play written and directed by a Chicano ever to be produced on Broadway. And a damned good movie, too.
Equal parts symbolic documentary, musical agit-prop and anthem to empowerment, the play concerns the 1942 incident known as the Sleepy Lagoon murder, in which members of L.A.’s 38th Street Gang were arrested and summarily convicted — in the courts and in the press. It was a time of racism and nationalistic fervor, a time when gang warfare made all the headlines and brutal stereotypes defined an entire ethnic group. It was a time not unlike our own.
In its most expansive project to date, in co-production with Southwestern College, the San Diego Repertory Theatre has scored a major coup: the first production of “Zoot Suit” in 16 years. After his disillusioning experiences in New York and Hollywood, Luis Valdez pulled the rights to the play. But he had faith in the Rep and in director Bill Virchis. The playwright’s brother served as artist-in-residence; Danny Valdez originated the role of Henry Reyna, the seething victim/hero of the story. And on opening night, not only were the Valdez brothers there, but also members of the original cast, and the family of Henry Leyvas, the real-life protagonist, and Alice Greenfield, the Jewish woman who fought for his freedom. It was an exciting event, with audience members dressed to the hilt — in ‘40s regalia and spectacular-looking zoot suits.
The staging by Virchis is wonderful: fresh, lively and inventive. But there’s a bit more realism than magic here, and that blunts the overall effect. Also, with more than 40 bodies onstage, it looks crowded at times, amateurish at others; it’s obvious that many students were involved. But in the major roles, the cast is potent and credible.
Dominating the action are Henry and his alter-ego, El Pachuco. That iconic character launched the career of Edward James Olmos; he was a menacing and mesmerizing presence onstage and on film. Jorge Galvan masters the look, the moves and the smartass remarks, but he lacks the sinister cynicism of a defiant, symbolic, charismatic Pachuco, about whom the entire show should revolve. Here, the focus is more on gritty reality, and on Henry, outstandingly portrayed by David Barrera.
John Iacovelli’s set design, with its recurrent newspaper wallpaper, is dull in color and concept. But the high-voltage onstage band, and the cast’s electric energy, conspire to make a chilling bilingual tale an often thrilling theatrical experience.
MUSIC, up and out: “”Vamos a Bailar”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.