THEATER REVIEW: San Diego Rep's “Zoot Suit” woven with fine threads

San Diego Repertory Theatre opens its 37th year with its most spectacular production to date: Luis Valdez’s 1978 Chicano classic “Zoot Suit.”

Cast your mind back to the early 1940s, when the world was at war in Europe and Japan, and Americans back home were dancing the swing and listening to Duke Ellington.

In Los Angeles, the problem for Chicanos was assimilation rather than immigration, illustrated by this line that now provokes audience titters: “I’m taking my wife and kids and moving to Arizona.”

Young Chicanos formed gangs and created their own cultural phenomenon around the zoot suit. But ethnic tensions in Los Angeles eventually erupted into riots after the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder case, which saw several Chicanos scapegoated for a murder they did not commit.

Raul Cardona plays the narrator/Greek chorus Pachuco, a quintessential zoot suiter resplendent in the requisite dress – long jacket, baggy pants with pleats, shiny shoes, long gold chain and black hat with a feather – and illustrating the distinctive walk and language. Cardona’s got the look and attitude down.

The first act introduces us to L.A.’s Chicano culture, revolving around main character Henry Reyna (the excellent Lakin Valdez), leader of the zoot suiters known as the 38th Street Gang and prime target of L.A. cops. The hot-headed Reyna doesn’t hesitate to cut a rug, but neither does he shrink from cutting an opponent. It’s the temper that will get him in trouble in jail.

Kirsten Brandt directs this sprawling, colorful, busy and captivating production with a sure hand – no easy task, and she must feel at times like a traffic cop, coordinating 36 actors and a boffo band of nine on a multilevel set where energetic dancing (wonderfully choreographed by Javier Velasco) breaks out often.

This is the Rep’s third co-production with San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, and uses several fine SCPA student actors, including Michael S. Garcia as Henry’s little brother Rudy and Celeste Lanuza and Mary Isabella as two-thirds of the terrific Andrews Sisters-like girl trio known as El Pachuco’s Chicas. The school also provided the terrific band (kudos to student director Hiram Garza), playing some great blues, Latin jazz and big band sounds (mostly by Lalo Guerrero).

David Lee Cuthbert created a set that makes points while staying out of the way of the dancers (no mean feat). His jailhouse design is minimal but effective, as is the courtroom scene with the judge (Mark Pinter) comically placed waaaaay up there on a perch. Cuthbert also did the fine lighting and projection designs.

Mary Larson gets a shout-out for her fine costumes as well.

“Zoot Suit” has a powerhouse cast without a weak leak. Jo Anne Glover is terrific as journalist-turned-activist Alice Bloomfield, who spearheads the appeal effort. James Newcomb is excellent as George Shearer, the defense attorney.

Herbert Siguenza (of Culture Clash, the Rep’s artist-in-residence this year) is properly cynical as the prosecutor called Press, and other fine characterizations were turned in by John Padilla, Catalina Maynard, Maya Malán-González, Spencer Smith, Steven Lone, Kevin Koppman-Gue and many others.

“Zoot Suit” plays through Aug. 12 at the Rep’s Lyceum Theatre. Don’t miss this show.

The details

“Zoot Suit” plays through Aug. 12 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm; selected Saturdays at 2 pm; selected Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm.

For tickets, call 619-544-1000 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.