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Zoot Suit

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It is a bit of SoCal history relegated to a forgotten file cabinet, seemingly as outdated as the file cabinet itself. Fortunately, the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the Los Angeles riots of the early 1940s have been broughtI out, dusted off, dramatized, and brilliantly showcased in song, dance, and dialogue at San Diego’s Repertory Theatre. Unfortunately, the themes of racial tension and ethnic profiling that were the foci of the original play are relevant today. (Can you say, Sheriff Joe Arpaio?)

 

But that disheartening social significance is no reason to avoid what this energetic, exciting, thoroughly entertaining production of Luis Valdez’ classical Zoot Suit has to offer. Among those theatrical gifts are: a knock-out cast skillfully directed by Kirsten Brandt, a snazzy jazz band worthy of the current club scene directed by Hiram Garza, Javier Velasco’s smart choreography danced with flash and flamboyance by ensemble and leads alike, music and lyrics by Lalo Guerrero, Luis Valdez, and Daniel Valdez , with arrangements and orchestrations by Bill Doyle and Hiram Garza, respectively, that carry on after the final curtain, and a script that pulls history into contemporary without losing its focus or substance.

 

The story is based on actual events that prompted and resulted from the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial of 1942 when a group of Mexican gang members--called pachucos—were falsely charged, convicted, and imprisoned for murder. The title comes from the outfits worn by young Mexican men, and some women, characterized by long, slicked back hair, balloon pants tight at the ankles, elongated coattails, and lengthy silver watch chains. In an age when minorities were supposed to remain in society’s background, the zoot suit (called “a drape” by those who wore it) made a statement of power and non-conformity that rankled the establishment.

Racial tensions in wartime, when people were uncertain and fearful and the media were looking for sensationalism, polarized the populace and often exploded in fights, gang wars, and police roundups. In Los Angeles, where thousands of young men from a segregated military came to celebrate shore leave, the conflicts often escalated, fueled by booze, sex, and the perception of white privilege. Yet, the young men and women of all races would not be denied the merrymaking and lovemaking that defined their age and gave life to their experiences. That entire social scene is depicted in this play, and thanks to James Newcomb’s animated fight choreography, Kevin Anthenill’s sharp sound design, and David Lee Cuthbert’s spot-on scenic, lighting, and projection design, the action and activity never wane. This play is about people, as much as it is about events and happenings. And it is the characters’ lives that create the meaningful universal relevance of this story.

Presiding over the play and intensifying the action is the mythical character, El Pachuco, (brilliantly and expressively wrought by Raul Cardona) who, is at times, a commentator, at others a participant and, once, even a sacrifice. In true trickster fashion (and his outfit is the best of designer Mary Larson’s vibrant costumes), he remains mostly uncommitted, preferring mischief and mayhem over involvement. El Pachuco speaks solely to Henry Reyna, the elder son in a close-knit family, who leads the gang and the neighborhood. Lakin Valdez captures Henry’s controlled anger and explosive machismo to maximum effect, underlining the injustice that is integral to the play’s credible action. This production is in partnership with San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, which is distinguished by the young actors, musicians, and technical crew whose professionalism belies their age and experience. Michael S. Garcia, who plays Henry’s younger and more volatile brother, Rudy, is a shining example, and he is certainly one to watch. The entire ensemble proves that youth and quality work can go together.

Civil rights activism, however, sometimes produces unique associations, as depicted in the character of Alice Bloomfield (an earnest, yet intense Jo Anne Glover), a passionate advocate for the imprisoned gang members, and George Shearer (a sincerely convincing James Newcomb), the gang’s optimistic white defense attorney. Because neither appears to be of minority descent, their “street cred” and motivations come into question by the very people for whom they work so tirelessly. Alice, particularly, is called upon to justify her involvement with minority issues, until, in one dynamic scene with Henry, she proves her mettle.

Other mettle-proving performances come from John Padilla as patriarch Enrique Reyna, Mark Pinter as the Joe Friday-type Lieutenant Edwards and the entitled Judge F.W. Charles, Maya Malan-Gonzalez as Henry’s love interest Della Barrios, and John Nutten in several roles, including the scary police Sergeant Smith, who epitomizes the misuse of power behind the badge.

He and Sheriff Joe would probably be drinking buddies today. But that would be a story for another time, drawn from a different file. Or, would it?

“Zoot Suit” continues on the San Diego Repertory Theatre stage through Sunday, August 12.Performances are: Thurs-Sat at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Selected performances on Saturdays at 2 p.m and Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Consult www.sdrep.org for full schedule

Tickets are $31-$57, with discounts for groups, seniors, and military.

Reservations: at www.sdrep.org or by phone at (619) 544-1000.


 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.