Any comparison between the history-making 1978 production of Zoot Suit with its 2017 retelling would be unfair to the latter. It’s not the same Zoot Suit We are older but the audience is younger. The times have changed and the crap hasn’t. We are still here. Frail memories of that 1978 experience and surrounding hype elevate expectations that will not be satisfied. I saw the 2017 production in preview and last Saturday the 18th. Both times were satisfying theatrical experiences of themselves, and definitely a cut above the Taper’s regular programming.
The devil came to Los Angeles wearing a black silk zoot suit carrying a paper-still-wrinkly script by Luis Valdez and backed by the big band sounds of Lalo Guerrero with inspired choreography by Maria Torres. In a contest for Henry Reyna’s soul, the devil beguiles the teenager with lots of huisas, frenetic dancing, infectious swing rhythms, but leads Henry through a set of crises that will force Hank to choose between pachuquismo or whatever is out there.
The idea of Zoot Suit as a morality play pales in the face of the infectious music and smile-inducing throng of jitterbuggers filling the stage in constant movement with slick vocal arrangements and show-stopper solos. But that’s the devil at work, to keep you from doing anything but sit back in your expensive upholstered seat and let Zoot Suit work its magic.
El Pachuco is puro myth, from the switchblade he uses to part the curtains to his wonderful admission that the play reflects “the secret fantasy of every vato, living in or out of la pachucada, to put on a zoot suit and play the myth, mas chucote que la chingada. Pues orale!” But his is a persuasive myth that holds young Reyna in its grip and Reyna does everything possible to meet pachuco demands.
Henry Reyna is young and virile, a rooster loose in the chicken yard. El Pachuco is Reyna’s alternate self, an alter ego who swaggers and snarls across the stage, is quick with fist and filero, philosophizing to Henry about being a man, having a place in society, offering Henry a role model by embodying defiance and competence, recklessness and explosive spontaneity, and a quick ironic wit.
Being pachuco exacts a heavy penalty on Henry, as when Henry and Della are jumped. Henry’s first thought after having his ass kicked at Sleepy Lagoon is to go get some pachucos to raid the Downey Boys and get even. It’s the event that the court farce converts into life in San Quentin. In prison, Henry confronts the cost of playing into the myth. In a profoundly anguished speech, Henry tells el Pachuco to disappear, allowing Reyna to manage his life on his own. At first, el Pachuco doesn’t speak, then he breaks the silence and discomfort by quipping , “relax, ese, it’s just a pinche play.”
Is Henry lonely, or is he playing the field, playacting the ever-irresponsible macho? Something is going on between Alice and Henry, even with a guard peering down at their intimate conversations. When he gets home, he’s estranged from Della, who did a year in juvie for being Henry Reyna’s huisa. El Pachuco isn’t around to offer consejos on women and love. It’s a plot thread that didn’t need to be, especially to make room for more of the elders.
The parents have insignificant roles and cursory scenes. Cultural transition and generational change play important roles in pachuco ethos. When the father complains about the language the kids speak they rebuke him with loving tenderness. When the kids gather to leave for a dance, the father demands the boys kiss his hand to demonstrate their obedience. One obedient son then gets puking drunk at the party leading to a knife fight between Henry and Rafas from Downey. The dissonance between core family values and destructive public behavior offers fertile rows to hoe, but sadly, the play lets it lie fallow, to our loss.
Director Luis Valdez and the casting trio of Rosalinda Morales, Pauline O’Con, and Candido Cornejo assembled a powerful company who are still growing into their roles, given the preview and last weekend’s matinee. It’s a wonder seeing so many dancers and actors of color, purportedly Chicana Chicano artists. How refreshing to see a Taper cast filled with local actors, including the two leads. A number of out-of-towners come from el Teatro Campesino’s hometown of San Juan Bautista. Carrying el papel of el Pachuco is a film and television actor who grew up in Mexico, Demian Bichir. It’s Bichir’s Mark Taper Forum debut. Hank Reyna is Matias Ponce, a local television and stage actor who has appeared for LATC, the city’s major raza theater.
Among supporting cast are Rose Portillo and Daniel Valdez as the mother and father. Portillo portrayed the ingénue lead, Della, in the 1978 run. There’s a special warmth in the fact Valdez portrays his own father. In the first-run production, Daniel Valdez was Hank Reyna. Before that, Valdez was the original el Pachuco in Zoot Suit’s New Theater For Now run.
The el Pachuco role makes strenuous demands of an actor who must go from repartee to fast dancing and prancing then back to narration, without sounding out of breath nor soaked in sweat. Demian Bichir handles the role with grace. Bichir doesn’t need the growling voice, especially as he doesn’t sing with it, and loses it regularly to talk just like a normal actor. If he thinks growling makes him menacing he needs to re-think that, instead use presence to turn on that persona so that people all the way in the back row feel the heat.
Matias Ponce left me wanting more. Hank Reyna is magnetic, draws pachucos pachucas to him where they act with dangerous stupidity just because it’s Hank’s word. Ponce’s Henry Reyna isn’t yet fully alive with commanding charisma. At the climactic moment when the cast shouts out, “Henry Reyna lives!” I don’t feel like standing up and cheering like the line is supposed to work.
Hank hasn’t made me feel all that bad when fate sends Hank back to the pinta only to OD later. I’m not as moved as I’d like to be, hearing that alternative Hank got KIA in Korea and his body got the Medal of Honor. I like to think Hank and Della are happily ever after in Frogtown and their kids go to school and learn to read “See Spot, see Spot run.” Henry matters. I want to stand teary-eyed and cheer. It’s in the role for Ponce to find it.
I’d buy a ticket just to see if Bichir and Ponce ever get to the top of their roles, but the run appears to be sold out except for a smattering of seats. Not insuperable; you will take seat N18, your date can have the one closer to the action, K55.
¿Pero sabes que? Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum deserves to be the hottest ticket in town. Don’t let your own pachuco devil whisper in your ear that it’s too much trouble, that it’s just a pinche play, don’t take it so seriously. Chale, ese. Zoot Suit is a great Unitedstatesian play, the greatest Chicano play. Audiences across the region deserve to get up to the Music Center and treat themselves to a memorably magical afternoon, or evening, of Teatro Campesino and Luis Valdez at the top of their game.
Copyright 2017 by Michael Sedano. This review appeared previously on La Bloga: http://labloga.blogspot.com/search?q=ZOOT+SUIT