LOS ANGELESOne of the hottest theater tickets in Southern California right now is the acclaimed revival of Zoot Suit. The hit Chicano musical has been repeatedly extended at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, which is the same venue where Zoot Suit debuted in 1978 before transferring to Broadway the following year.
Zoot Suit was revived to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the influential regional powerhouse that is Center Theatre Group, but it has become so much more than just a nostalgia trip for Angelenos with long memories. Zoot Suit has actually become a vital and full-throttled piece of protest theater in light of so much anti-immigrant hatred currently spewing forth from the White House and the Republican-led U.S. Congress.
Zoot Suit dramatizes the grossly unjust trials tied to Southern California's "Sleepy Lagoon Murder" of 1942, which led to the prosecution of 21 young Latino men including Henry Reyna ( Matias Ponce ) who was pegged as the ringleader. The racist "Zoot Suit Riots" from the following year are also dramatized, reexamining the ugly moment when U.S. sailors and marines felt justified in attacking well-dressed Black and Latino men for their "unpatriotic" fashion gear in a time of clothing rationing during World War II.
Zoot Suit was the main brainchild of playwright and director Luis Valdez, the founder of El Teatro Campesino ( The Farm Workers' Theater ). Valdez himself is back to oversee this splendid and energetic revival, as are original Zoot Suit stars Daniel Valdez and Rose Portillo ( the two have aged on from the show's main young lovers to play Reyna's parents ).
This revival of Zoot Suit has also been able to attract Academy Award-nominee Demian Bichir ( A Better Life ) to play the iconic role of the narrator El Pachuco, a star-making role originated by Edward James Olmos. Bichir is much more gruffer El Pachuco than Olmos' smooth take ( captured for posterity in the 1981 film version of Zoot Suit ), but he ultimately gets the job done as a very Brechtian device who embodies and oozes Latino machismo while encouraging and cajoling Henry Reyna throughout his trying times in the court and prison systems.
If New York producers haven't already sewn up the rights to Zoot Suit for a major Broadway revival, every major regional theater across the U.S. should be clamoring to produce this musical. Not only is it a thrilling dramatized piece of Latino-American history, it also speaks to the fraught times we're living in when so many American minority groups are under attack.
Zoot Suit, presented in association with El Teatro Campesino at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, continues in an extended run through Sunday, April 2, at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Tickets range from $25-$125; call 213-628-2772 or visit CenterTheatreGroup.org .
More WWII drama
In addition to Zoot Suit, L.A.-area theatergoers have another music-filled World-War-II drama to choose from with 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips. This truly is a "total theater" touring piece devised by the British Cornwall-based theater company Kneehigh, which is perhaps most famous on this side of the pond for its Tony Award-nominated stage adaptation of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter and its tour of Tristan & Yseult ( which previously played at Chicago Shakespeare Theater ).
946 is inspired by a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, who is best-known for his novel of War Horse which was adapted into blockbuster stage and screen versions. Morpurgo himself teamed up with Emma Rice, former artistic director of Kneehigh and currently with Shakespeare's Globe in London, to adapt his novel for the stage. The result is a pure delight and like War Horse before it, filled with animals depicted in amazing puppet form.
The initial plotline for 946 revolves around a head-strong little girl named Lily Tregenza ( Katy Owen ) who is obsessed with her mischievous cat named Adolphus Tips. Lily's wartime life is not only upended when evacuee children from London crowd into her rural neighborhood, but also when African-American G.I.s like Adi ( Ncuti Gatwa ) and Harry ( Nandi Bhebhe ) arrive to train for the planned D-Day landings.
Yet the title number also represents the 946 soldiers who were killed due to miscommunication and friendly fire in one of the Allied Forces' worst training disasters, so there is a very dark and serious side to this ostensibly children's theater piece. Otherwise 946 is great fun thanks to its amazing ensemble who are all multi-talented as actors, dancers, musicians, singers and puppeteers. And depending upon the moment, the ensemble also become drag artists since nearly every performer plays both male and female characters throughout the course of the show.
Although 946 could have delved deeper into U.S.-imposed racial segregation that occurred in the U.K. during WWII, this children's play does teach vital lessons in patience, tolerance and fighting for what's right. 946 may be targeted at families with children, but it's truly an entertaining and timely theater piece for all.
Kneehigh's tour of 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips continues through Sunday, March 5, in the Bram Goldsmith Theater of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 470 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. Tickets are $39-$99; call 310-246-3800 or visit TheWallis.org .
The production then plays from Thursday, March 16, through Sunday, April 9, at St. Ann's Warehouse, 45 Water St., Brooklyn, New York. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 718-254-8779 or visit StAnnsWarehouse.org .