Friday, February 17, 2017

'Zoot Suit' Slick Production At Mark Taper Forum

Courtesy of Craig Schwartz
Demian Bichir, center left, Mathias Ponce and company in 'Zoot Suit'

By Darlene Donloe

Nearly 40 years ago on Aug. 17, 1978, a trailblazing show called Zoot Suit hit the Mark Taper Forum stage and literally changed the face of theater. In 1979, it made history as the first Chicano Broadway musical and launched the career of Edward James Olmos, who received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of the metaphorical Pachuco, who guides us through the story in his “too cool for school” dynamic zoot suit. Olmos later starred in the 1980 movie, directed by Luis Valdez.

Originally commissioned and developed by Center Theatre Group, the show, presented in association with El Teatro Campesino, played the Taper and then moved on to the Aquarius in Hollywood before making its move to the Great White Way.

Fast forward to February 2017 and Zoot Suit, which is a true story about a scandalous court case, is making a triumphant return at the Mark Taper Forum through March 26.

The show about the tension between generations in a Chicano family, the rifts between cultures in America and how racism and injustice can haunt a city and a society, proves how history can repeat itself. It’s a timely piece that cast a spotlight on the relationship between law enforcement and brown and black people.
In the Mark Taper Forum production, Oscar-nominated actor Demian Bichir takes over the heavily-macho role Olmos made famous. Bichir’s accent is so thick and his voice so raspy that at times, especially when he’s speaking in Spanish, the dialogue becomes lost in translation. Still, his swag is so on point, you just laugh along with the rest of the audience.
The story focuses on Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce), who helms a street gang that is accused of killing a man at Sleepy Lagoon, a popular swimming hole.  His crew includes Joey (Oscar Comacho), Smiley (Raul Cardona) and Tommy (Caleb Foote).
When the group is jailed for the crime, they must all find a way to survive, while never losing faith that the system will find them innocent.   While in jail, Henry, who intended to marry Della (Jeanine Mason) before he was jailed, becomes entangled when he starts to correspond and meet with leftist journalist Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont), who advocates for his release.
Valdez’s staging is vibrant, brisk and effective.  The cast is strong and the pace of the show keeps the story moving forward.
This is a rich, thematic and lively show with a timely story that’s full of infectious music and lots of dancing.

The opening night audience was ecstatic when Rose Portillo, who portrays Henry’s mother, returns to the show after portraying Della in the original cast. Daniel Valdez, who starred as Henry on Broadway, also received a huge ovation opening night.

The production team is to be commended. The songs (Zoot Suit Boogie and Chucos Suaves) of composer Lalo Guerrero, regarded as the father of Chicano music are infectious. Christopher Acebo’s set design actually seems to expand the Mark Taper Forum stage. There are several risers that increase the vastness of the playing field.  Maria Torres’ irresistible choreography makes you want to swing and sway in your seat.  From start to finish this show is engaging. All of this makes for a production that is a must-see.

Zoot Suit, directed and written by Luis Valdez, stars Brian Abraham, Mariela Arteaga, Demian Bicher, Melinna Bobadilla, Oscar Camacho, Stephani Candelaria, Raul Cardona, Fiona Cheung, Tiffany Dupont, Caleb Foote, Holly Hyman, Kimberlee Kidd, Rocio Lopez, Jeanine Mason, Tom G. McMahon, Andres Ortiz, Michael Naydoe Pinedo, Matias Ponce, Rose Portillo, Gilbert Saldivar, Richard Steinmetz, Evan Strand, Bradford Tatum, Raphael Thomas and Daniel Valdez.

Zoot Suit director/writer: Luis Valdez; 
Music: Lalo Guerrero
set; designer: Christopher Acebo
costume; designer: Ann Closs-Farley
; lighting designer: Pablo Santiago; 
sound designer: Philip G. Allen
; musical director: Daniel Valdez
; projection designer: David Murakami
; choreographer: Maria Torres.
 Presented by Center Theatre Group, in association with El Teatro Campesino.

 On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Zoot Suit gets an E (excellent).

Zoot Suit, The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA  90012. $25-$95; For information: (213) 628-2772 or online at

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