REP’s ‘Zoot Suit’ soars with strong acting, dancing
By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
Strong, emotion-filled performances interspersed with energetic dancing and music can be seen at the Lyceum Stage in San Diego REPertory Theatre’s revival of “Zoot Suit” through Aug. 12.
The show is not your traditional musical, despite 20 songs played by a live orchestra, since with few exceptions the cast does not sing, but dances to the early 1940s Latin jazz selections.
“Zoot Suit” is inspired by the real-life murder trial of Chicano gang members in Los Angeles. The Sleepy Lagoon murder and its aftermath were a catalysis for the 1943 riots that started in Los Angeles between white servicemen and Mexican-American men and spread to cities across the country, including San Diego. Among riot factors were the perceived extravagance flouted by Mexican-Americans who wore the zoot suit, characterized by a long coat and baggy pants that went against war-fueled rationing of fabrics.
In San Diego REP’s production, the collaboration between professional performers and San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts students revolves around Henry Reyna (played by Lakin Valdez), perceived leader of the 38th Street gang. Around two dozen young men were tried and convicted in a kangaroo court and received various sentences for the murder including life in prison. These were later overturned.
Valdez plays the emotionally conflicted Reyna well. While trying to be strong for his family and fellow convicted gang members, when placed in solitary confinement the tough façade comes down and the audience is allowed to see Valdez express the difficulty of his situation.
Raul Cardona is the scene-stealer in his portrayal of the mythical El Pachuco, who serves as show narrator, embodies the flamboyant zoot suit persona and represents Reyna’s inner turmoil throughout the play. Cardona manages to find just the right balance, taking the character to the brink of outlandishness but not crossing it. He provides the right mix of humor and drama and is especially good in the tension-filled attack of Act II.
All other cast members do well in their respective roles and the swing dancing is especially enjoyable.
The one slight drawback to the show is if one does not know Spanish, there are portions of dialogue that escape comprehension. Sometimes the gist can be gleamed, but other times it cannot, especially with jokes and other humorous portions.
“Zoot Suit” can be seen at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays and select Saturdays; and 7 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays through Aug. 12 at the Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego.
Tickets are $31 to $57, with student, senior, military and group discounts available. Purchase at 619-544-1000 or www.sdrep.org.
Four hours of validated parking is offered to those who use the Horton Plaza garage.
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