City of the Angels indeed. The L.A. Chicano’s long struggle for justice continues today, even with nearly 30 percent of Los Angeles’ population Mexican and a mayor named Villaraigosa. Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, being staged for the first time in 17 years by San Diego Repertory Theatre, is a reminder of how bad it once was, and of how far we as a multicultural society still have to go.
This production of Valdez’s 1979 play about the Zoot Suit Riots of the ‘40s is venturesome: a sprawling cast (including Culture Clash’s Herbert Siguenza), an on-stage orchestra, a versatile set enhanced by projected timelines and historical documentations, and costumes (designed by Mary Larson) for everyone from cops and sailors on shore leave to the flamboyant pachucas and pachucos. Directed by Kirsten Brandt, whom Valdez says is the first woman to ever do so, this Zoot Suit is also a partnership between the Rep and the San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts.
Foot-tapping swing music from the band and vigorous choreography by Javier Velasco enliven what is a lengthy affair, especially the first half. The drama is ratcheted up in the second act, when wrongly convicted pachuco Henry Reyna (Lakin Valdez) agonizes in prison and a strident reporter hellbent on freeing him, Alice Bloomfield (Jo Anne Glover) becomes his reason to keep believing. The Calvary-like persecution of the play’s spectral, ever-present El Pachuco (Raul Cardona) is a heavy-handed ploy, but a scene in solitary between Henry and the figure he realizes is inside him is an a-ha moment that doesn’t shout its significance.
Lakin Valdez is intensity personified as Henry, and Glover’s Alice is at once fiercely committed and vulnerable. Siguenza, in multiple roles, is a welcome presence, and Cardona is a too-cool El Pachuco, though his singing gets drowned out by the band and backup chorus.
With its knife fights, swing-dance sequences and one hilariously ribald second-act number, “Hardball,” Zoot Suit is packed, perhaps overly packed, with action, and the pachucos’ winning of their appeal transpires without build-up. Yet this is a passionate work with cultural gravity and a sense of history.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.