I want to apologize for my lack of posts recently. At this production I lost my review notebook, which has set me back about three shows. I apologize for the delay and lack of show-specific notes. If/when the notebook shows up, I will edit accordingly. If you have any leads, the notebook was last seen Tuesday February 14th at the Mark Taper Forum. The front is black and white photography of a New York City landscape and says something like "New York Times, Throughout the Ages." Sorry about that.
Ah Valentines Day. My favorite holiday, not for it's mushy romantic themes, but for the amount of mail involved (in case you didn't know, I am obsessed with mail). In the days leading up to this holiday we have the opportunity to send valentines to everyone we appreciate: friends, family, colleagues, mentors, etc. Apart from the lovely little Valentines I was sending and receiving on this very special day, the only thing that could improve it was my other great love, the theatre. And what better night to watch the show that has been described as "a love letter to LA?"
Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum is a 40th anniversary revival of the original production, written and directed by prolific LA playwright Luis Valdez. In this iconic play turned film, through the character Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce) and his inner Pachuco (Academy Award nominee Demian Birchir), we delve feet first into the 1940s Los Angeles Chicano experience, specifically surrounding the Sleepy Lagoon Trials. Although the characters are fictional by name, actual transcripts of these trials salvaged from the UCLA special collections were used to create the courtroom dialogue and surrounding piece of historical fiction. Through his romance, brotherhood, family and pressures of life during wartime, we follow Henry and the Pachuco though one of the most exciting, political, revolutionary moments in LA History.
To be fair, Valentines Day was not my first time seeing this production. I watched the show twice. My first visit was the very first preview performance, where Luis Valdez announced to the audience pre-curtain that this show is kind of like a tamale; it's not at its best when it comes right out of the oven, it's better after it's been able to sit for a few days. The show was still in preview mode and still needed the next few days to become solid and delicious. I was in a bad mood and was only watching the show so that I could discuss it with patrons at work later that week. Combined with my negative attitude, it was clear that the show needed tightening, in its musicality, blocking, cues and choreography and even some of the relationships. However, it was first preview. So I committed to watching the show after opening to give myself and it another shot.
The second time I watched the show on Valentine's Day, it was much, much better. And by that point I had already had conversations with patrons that had seen it more than once. And patrons that still wanted to see it again.
So, as far as love letters go, there are things I loved about it and there are things I didn't love about it.
What I loved
It's funny, it's musical and you don't have to speak Spanish to understand what's going on. We're meeting characters that we've never met before in an era unfamiliar to most, but it's not long before we realize how universal their struggles are, no matter what their age, race or faith may be, as emphasized by the boy's people's lawyer, George Shearer (played compassionately by Brian Abraham). When Henry's sister Lupe (Stephani Candelaria) gets busted by their dad for attempting to sneak out to the dance while wearing an ultra short dress...I had a total flashback to a similar attempted departure to youth group back in high school. That's just a silly little moment, but on a grander scale, Henry's battling his inner Pachuco, someone cool, funny and opinionated, yet dark and dangerous, is something we all face, and a part of us that will always be there if we choose to listen. You didn't have to grow up in the barrio to relate to these people. But the setting is prime for these lessons and themes.
The actors playing Henry's parents (Rose Portillo & Daniel Valdez), played the young lovers in the original production. Both of their performances were strong, in both their comedy and commitment to character. You can tell how much heart they have put into this play. I also fell in love with each of the young pachuco inmates, especially in their letters to and from Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont), their dedicated press representative at the beginning of act II (my favorite scene). Brought to life by their bold, specific character choices, each one has the opportunity to bring the audience into their souls through the art of the letter, while also confessing a little playful romantic interest towards Alice. I love this scene because we see how far these boys are from the dangerous criminals the press portrays them as. They express their real concerns for their families and communities during their time in prison, confiding in Alice to bring their truth to the media.
"Find them guilty of murder, and you will ruin the spirit of racial justice in America." -George Shearer
Overall, audiences have been even extremely supportive of this show. Even when it was shaky at first preview, there was an overwhelming vocal response at nearly every scene: hoots, laughs, applause, even booing at certain characters making Henry's life harder. Standing ovation material. At every performance you will be sure to find supporters in actual Pachuco inspired styles from bouffant hair to classic "drapes." Even if you don't speak Spanish, you'll still get all the feels and laughs, and if you do, I'm sure it's all the better. It's fun just being at this event. This is definitely the hottest celebration of LA in town. We're proud of it. You can feel it.
What I didn't
Have you ever received a love letter that was mostly well-intended, but at some points you were like, "...TMI..."? Like the guy should have quit while he was ahead? There were moments of the play that were just a tad TMI, as far as length, character and sometimes music.
On my drive to the Taper for that first preview, I was on the phone with a good friend of mine who works as the artistic assistant of The Writers Theatre in Chicago. "I'm on my way to Zoot Suit tonight," I told her.
"Why? Have you seen it?"
"No. I've only read it. I researched it since it's by a playwright of color and we need that voice in our season. But it was weird on the page at least."
Although I can see how this play might come off differently on book, I do think it has a transformative effect on stage, which is the point of a play. Since the play's original conception in 1978, the script has only had minor changes, a few musically and some to give the show a deeper focus on the female experience surrounding this story. However, for such a long play, I felt like the ending was a bit smacked on at the end. Nearing the end of the play, I felt like we went from point W to point Z. It's one of those moments when you're sitting there like, "Oh. Ok, so I guess that turned out ok, but I don't really understand how we got here." Structurally the ending was what bothered me the most about this production. That, and the relationship/love dynamic at the end seemed a little unbecoming to the hero of the play we had just fallen in love with. I felt like some of the choices surrounding his relationships did not put this culture in a good light and left me liking Henry less at the end of the play, even though we still honor him as the hero.
It should also be noted that on this same drive, separate phone call, my father expressed how much he had enjoyed the original production, and that he remembered it being a huge hit. I wish I could have seen the original so badly so that I could compare the two!
And on THAT note, after act I on my second visit to the show I spoke with a patron named Raina who had seen the original production as a little girl. She was loving this 2017 production so far. She said she might even like it better than the first time, as this was a bigger, flashier production than before. I agreed and told her that I wished I had seen the original more stripped down version. I did feel like the production quality was a bit showy and commercial, a bit too "Broadway." I was craving a bit more grunge and intimacy in the scenes to bring me back to the edginess of this point in history, in this location. However, Raina assured me that this production, even with its sharpness and flair, still shared the same intimacy, pertinence and powerful characters of the original, and that was what mattered most. She emphasized that she had seen the film at least ten times; she was a Zoot Suit fan for life!
What does this show make me want to change about myself? If this show is supposed to be a love letter to Los Angeles, I think it succeeds. It makes me proud to be from LA and it makes me want to feel that way more. I know so little about this stage of history in my own city, that it makes me want to be more historically versed on exactly what went down here, throughout the many years of our heritage and growth. The forties and beyond. And before that too. The character of Alice also inspires me to be an ally to minorities, especially in times like these. Every effort matters, no matter how small, no matter who motions it. Everyone has something to offer. The political relevance of this play today is nearly haunting.
Zoot Suit has now been extended through April 2nd at the Mark Taper Forum at Music Center in downtown Los Angeles. The show is selling out quickly, so your best bet to join in on this historic LA experience would be at a Tues-Thurs performance.