The revival of the iconic Luis Valdez play about 1940s Los Angeles "Zoot Suit" opened Sunday night back at the Mark Taper Forum, 39 years after the play first ran there. There was a festive opening night vibe outside the theater (souvenir tables, singers, lots of dressed-up fans and celebrities) and inside (applause for the first note of music, the appearance of Demian Bichir as El Pachuco and the first stage appearances by returning cast members Rose Portillo and Daniel Valdez, who in 1978 played Della and Henry, the young lovers at the center of the story.) A couple of veiled references in the script to fears about life under the Trump Administration also drew applause.
The Music Center announced last night that the run has been extended a second time to March 26.
This is a fantastical makeover of the original "Zoot Suit" that opens the 50th season of the Taper, again with Luis Valdez directing and music by Lalo Guerrero. Some pre-coverage:
When “Zoot Suit” first opened at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978, little about the production screamed hit. Much of the cast had scant acting experience. The story itself was a Brechtian take on a relatively obscure unsolved murder in 1942 Los Angeles; its climax involved a humiliating assault on a Latino man by racist United States servicemen. Just a decade earlier, its writer and director, Luis Valdez, was creating short skits for audiences of striking farmworkers in the fields of the Central Valley in California.
But audiences kept coming, and coming, selling out show after packed show. Fans came one week and returned with their families the next; Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead is said to have seen the play 22 times. After running for 11 months to sold-out audiences, first at the Taper and then at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood, “Zoot Suit” moved to New York’s Winter Garden in 1979, where it became the first Chicano theatrical production on Broadway. Mr. Valdez then directed a feature-film version, which was released in 1982. “We had no idea any of this would happen, man,” he said. “It was like this huge explosion.”
Today, at a vigorous 76, hair and mustache graying, Valdez flashes the same benevolent smile he flashed when his aptly named El Teatro Campesino, the Farmworkers’ Theater, was in its infancy in the 1960s. Valdez and I first met during those salad days, shortly before I joined the drama desk of the Los Angeles Times, as I was completing my MFA on the Inner City Cultural Center, an L.A. company founded in response to the 1965 Watts Riots and the place where Valdez’s troupe of campesinos was invited to perform.
In September 1965, Chavez led a strike in the Central Valley to protest low pay and poor working conditions.
“I went to Delano to see Chavez in the first week of the strike,” Valdez said. “We marched, but I felt intimidated. Chavez had important meetings. I was afraid he’d see my idea as frivolous.”
Bichir, who first performed on stage at age 3 and at 17 was directed in his first leading role by Tony winner Jose Quintero, returns to the theater when he can. When he heard about the Taper’s revival of its landmark 1978 production of “Zoot Suit,” he sought an interview with playwright-director Valdez to detail his vision for the role. An actor who these days works with the likes of Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Scott wanted to walk the boards again in a role that made a strong impression on him in his teens when he saw Valdez’s film version of the play.
“This is high literature,” says Bichir, folded into a rehearsal room chair. “This is a play that should not take 40 years to be re-staged. Like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and Shakespeare, this is a classic.”
L-R (Bottom row): (Tiffany Dupont, partially obscured), Jeanine Mason, Demian Bichir, Matias Ponce, Daniel Valdez and Rose Portillo; (top row) Evan Strand, Fiona Cheung, Mariela Arteaga and Holly Hyman in the revival of “Zoot Suit.”
Rose Portillo and Daniel Valdez.