City of the Angels, indeed. The L.A. Chicano's long struggle for justice continues today, even with nearly 30 percent of Los Angeles' population Mexican and a mayor named Villaraigosa. Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit, being staged for the first time in 15 years by San Diego Repertory Theatre, is a reminder of how bad it once was, and of how far we as a multicultural society still have to go.
This production of Valdez's 1979 play about the Zoot Suit Riots of the '40s is venturesome: a sprawling cast (including Culture Clash's Herbert Siguenza), a versatile set enhanced by projected timelines and historical documentations, an onstage orchestra and costumes (designed by Mary Larson) for everyone from cops and sailors on shore leave to the flamboyant pachucas and pachucos. Directed by Kirsten Brandt, whom Valdez says is the first woman to ever do so, this Zoot Suit is also a partnership between the Rep and the San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts.
Foot-tapping swing music from the band and vigorous choreography by Javier Velasco enliven what is a lengthy affair, especially the first half. The drama is ratcheted up in the second act, when wrongly convicted pachuco Henry Reyna (Lakin Valdez) agonizes in prison and a strident reporter hell-bent on freeing him, Alice Bloomfield (Jo Anne Glover), becomes his reason to keep believing. The Calvary-like persecution of the play's spectral, ever-present El Pachuco (Raul Cardona) is a heavy-handed ploy, but a scene in solitary between Henry and the figure he realizes is inside him is an "a ha" moment that doesn't shout its significance.
Lakin Valdez is intensity personified as Henry, and Glover's Alice is at once fiercely committed and vulnerable. Siguenza, in multiple roles, is a welcome presence, and Cardona is a too-cool El Pachuco, though his singing gets drowned out by the band and backup chorus.
With its knife fights, swing-dance sequences and one hilariously ribald second-act number, "Hardball," Zoot Suit is packed, perhaps overly packed, with action, and the pachucos' winning of their appeal transpires without buildup. Yet this is a passionate work with cultural gravity and a sense of history.
Zoot Suit runs through Aug. 12 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, Downtown. $32-$57. sdrep.org
Fiddler on the Roof: It's 1905, and Russian milkman and father Tevye just can't get hip to the modern world. Opens July 25 at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista. moonlightstage.com
Into the Woods: The musical that debuted at The Old Globe in 1986 before making it to Broadway a year later interweaves characters from classic Brothers Grimm fairytales. Opens July 26 at Avo Playhouse in Vista. moonlightstage.com
God of Carnage: Two sets of ill-behaved parents fight over their sons' altercation in a park in this darkly comedic play, which originated in Switzerland and was adapted by Roman Polanski into the 2011 film Carnage. Opens July 27 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
Joe vs. the Volcano : Remember the 1990 movie starring Tom Hanks about a guy who thinks he's dying of "brain cloud" and agrees to jump into a volcano? Well, now it's musical theater. Through July 29 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado. lambsplayers.org
Made in the USA : A revue of various music styles that are the genuine American article, including folk, gospel, ragtime, blues and country. Through July 29 at the Broadway Theatre in Vista. broadwayvista.com
Divine Rivalry : Master manipulator Niccolò Machiavelli pits Leonardo Da Vinci against Michelangelo in a mural-painting competition in 16th-century Italy. Through Aug. 5 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
The Man Who Came to Dinner : A pompous critic and radio personality is injured in a fall on the way to dinner at the home of a small-town Ohio family and must stay longer than planned as he heals. Through Aug. 5 at the Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
The Nightingale : A young emperor in ancient China is feeling claustrophobic within the Forbidden City when he hears the sweet song of a bird. Yes, this, too, is a musical, with tunes by composer Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater. Through Aug. 5 at La Jolla Playhouse. lajollaplayhouse.org
Sheila : Rock musical about a beautiful, popular high-school girl who, word has it, has been around the block a few times—if you know what we mean. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. Say no more. Through Aug. 5 at Patio Playhouse in Escondido. patioplayhouse.com
Dames at Sea : A young Utah woman arrives in New York with dreams of stardom and then— voila! —becomes one. In between, there's singing and dancing. Extended through Aug. 12 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
Man of La Mancha : Don Quixote dreams the impossible dream, or so Miguel de Cervantes tells us, in this classic musical. Through Aug. 26 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. cygnettheatre.com
miXtape : Generation X was torn between disillusionment and hope in this cavalcade of music from the 1980s. Produced by Lamb's Players Theatre, it runs through Sept. 2 at the Horton Grand Theatre, Downtown. lambsplayers.org
Respect: A Musical Journey of Women : The evolution of women's roles in society is explored through past top-40 hits in this upbeat musical. Extended through Sept. 9 at the Lyceum Stage at Horton Plaza. lyceumevents.org
Inherit the Wind : The Old Globe takes on the classic fictionalized version of the true story of the Scopes "monkey trial," at the end of which a high-school teacher was convicted for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. The 1955 play used the trial as a parallel to the McCarthyism of the era. Through Sept. 25 in the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre at The Old Globe in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
Richard III : King Edward IV's malicious, manipulative, murderous little brother lusts for England's throne, takes it and presides over a reign of terror in Shakespeare's history play. Through Sept. 29 in The Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
As You Like It : If it's a case of mistaken identity, it must be the Bard. The story of lovebirds Rosalind and Orlando in the Forest of Arden is part of The Old Globe's 2012 Shakespeare Festival. Through Sept. 30 in the Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
Once Upon a Wedding : Zaniness abounds during a wedding gone horribly wrong, and it does so while patrons dine aboard a boat making its way around Mission Bay, beginning at the Bahia Resort Hotel. Runs on various dates through Dec. 13. onceuponaweddingthemusical.com
Crime Pays : A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net