SAN DIEGO — Big and beautiful, Luis Valdez's landmark Mexican American play "Zoot Suit" unfolded proudly Friday against a backdrop of history and nostalgic myth in a lively production filled with brassy music and swagger on the Lyceum Stage.
The revival of this 1978 show, mounted by the San Diego Repertory Theatre in association with Southwestern College, has the stylish period look of the 1940s Los Angeles pachucos, whose story it tells with a theatrical flair for broad strokes, most romantically embodied in its well-draped star, Jorge Galvan.
As El Pachuco, an all-knowing figure created by the playwright to offer running commentary on his drama about the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and Chicano gang riots of 1942-43, the tall, angular Galvan cuts a bold swath and lavishes it with comic irony until he is himself stripped bare, literally and symbolically, in the show's singularly affecting, climactic moment.
The story of Henry Reyna and the so-called 38th Street Gang, who were convicted and imprisoned by a kangaroo court amid media-fanned hysteria and who eventually had their convictions overturned on appeal, is ably streamlined in the politicized street-theater mold that Valdez used so effectively to put the lives of Chicano migrant workers onstage with El Teatro Campesino during the 1960s.
But this production--the first "Zoot Suit" in almost two decades since a disastrous panning on Broadway, after a sensational run in Los Angeles--also shows off the play's weaknesses. For all its looks and its huge, enthusiastic cast, "Zoot Suit" skids across the surface of the events it depicts without drawing its central characters in anything more than sketchy outlines.
As a result, the emotional effect of the message is not as engaging as it might be; and the human toll seems slighter than warranted by the size of the events and the significance attributed to them.
While scant character development necessarily comes with Valdez's theatrical formula, the absence of nuance contributes to a soapy treatment of the love affair between Henry and Alice, a Jewish reporter who takes up his cause.
Director William A. Virchis has staged the production with dynamic choreography and a turntable on a two-tiered set. But the backstage star is costume designer Dione H. Lebhar, whose swank zoot suits steal the show.
On opening night, an audience clearly tuned into the play gave a big ovation to the playwright, attending with his brother Danny and others from the original production at the Mark Taper Forum, as well as Alice McGrath (the real-life Alice) and Henry's brother Rudy, also portrayed in the play. McGrath, looking considerably younger than her years, stood stage center as applause washed over her, the modesty of her presence seeming to dwarf the astonished crowd of actors taking their bows.
* "Zoot Suit: An American Play," San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum, Horton Plaza, San Diego. Tues., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.; also Wednesday and Oct. 22, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 26. $20-$30. (619) 544-1000. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
A San Diego Repertory Theatre and Southwestern College production of a play by Luis Valdez. Director William A. Virchis. Score conceived and arranged by Daniel Valdez, with additional music by Duke Ellington, Louis Prima, Glenn Miller, Lalo Guerrero and Harry James. Choreographer Javier Velasco. Musical director Berke McKelvey. Scenic design John Iacovelli. Costume design Dione H. Lebhar. Lighting design David Lee Cuthbert. Sound design Randy Cohen. Fight director James Newcomb. Stage manager Alexis Randolph.