Thursday, July 26, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Zoot Suit" at San Diego REP

San Diego REP Boasts a Colorful and Vibrant “Suit”:
Professional actors team up with students at The San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts to bring “Zoot Suit” back in a splashy (if a bit scattered) revival

By Donnie Matsuda

Raul Cardona as El Pachuco.  Photo credit: Daren Scott.
There’s a lot going on in San Diego REP’s 37th Season opener, Zoot Suit.  

First, there’s the concept of the “zoot suit” as an iconic means of dress and the uniform of choice for Chicano gangs on the streets of Los Angeles in the early 1940s.  The colorful and outrageously patterned long jackets, high-waisted and tightly belted pants, and short ties - all with snazzy fedoras to match - are nicely re-created here by costume designer Mary Larson.   

L-R Alex Monge as Cub Reporter, Herbert Siguenza as The Press, Joanne Glover as Alice Bloomfield.  Photo credit: Daren Scott.
Then, there’s the specific story of the “Zoot Suiters” – a gang of twenty-one Mexican American men who were tried and wrongly accused of killing a young Chicano boy in the infamous Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial of 1942.  Here, their story is told through the play’s central character, Henry Rayna (a compelling Lakin Valdez, former artistic director of El Teatro Campesino) and three featured men in his gang: Smiley Torres (Spencer Smith), Joey Castro (Steven Lone), and Tommy Roberts (Kevin Koppman-Gue).  

There are also some overarching thematic digs at the sensationalized yet sympathetic nature of the media from a flashbulb happy reporter named Press (an engaging Herbert Siguenza) and a passionate journalist named Alice Bloomfield (a smart and savvy Jo Anne Glover) who becomes one of Henry’s most ardent supporters both during and after the trial.  And, of course, the play makes a mockery of our American justice system in a few scenes that expose the circus-like atmosphere, sleazy no-good lawyers, and ultimate injustice that are all too common in courtrooms across our country.  All of this plays out amidst the backdrop of World War II, as the war in the Pacific rages on and young people are dancing up a storm (thanks to the frantic and frenzied stylings of choreographer Javier Velasco) amid the big band beat of Latin jazz (delivered with plenty of pizzazz from music director Bill Doyle and his nine-piece onstage band).  

L-R Parnia Ayari as Bertha Villareal and Steven Lone as Joey Castro.  Photo credit: Daren Scott.
With so much going on, and so little of it grounded in any sort of narrative framework, it is a miracle that director Kirsten Brandt is able to make any sense of the madness that is Zoot Suit.  An explosion of powerful thematic arcs, a random mish-mash of roustabout characters, propulsive and electrifying fantasy sequences interwoven with dance interludes, and a bunch of slick technical wizardry (splashy sets, evocative lighting, and vibrant projections designed by Brandt’s husband, David Lee Cuthbert) all seems like it might be too much for one production to handle.  But, somehow Brandt is able to work her magic here and she does what she can to organize and stage it all so that the nearly three hour production powers through with plenty of style and plenty of sass.  

The Company of "Zoot Suit."  Photo credit: Daren Scott.
In the end, what we’re left with at the end of this scattered and somewhat schizophrenic journey (which jarringly shifts back and forth between staid book scenes and bursting-at-the-seams exuberant dance breaks that come out of nowhere) is the look and feel of that mystical figure of “El Pachuco,” personified to perfection by Raul Cardona, as he struts downstage with his head up, his lips smugly pursed, and his hands in his pockets, saying nary a word but saying so much about the suave, slick air that characterized an entire subgroup of Latinos in America. 

Things to know before you go: ZOOT SUIT presented by San Diego REP plays on the Lyceum Stage at Lyceum Theatre through August 12, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours 50 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm; performances are also scheduled on selected Saturdays at 2pm and selected Sundays, Tuesday, and Wednesdays at 7pm.  Ticket prices are $31-$57 with discounts available for groups, seniors, and military.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 544-1000 or visit

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