"Zoot Suit Riots," a new show by Collide Theatrical, is a dance piece that resembles musical theater. The main difference is that singers sing and dancers dance, which solves two-thirds of the musical theater requirement for triple-threat performers.
The third requirement, acting, is the weakest link of the show, which opened last weekend at the Lab Theater. The dancers can act just fine when they're not talking. It's when they have to say words that things fall a little flat.
The story is set in 1943 during the Zoot Suit Riots, a series of attacks against Latino and African-American youths by white Marine officers that began in Los Angeles and eventually spread to other cities. The story centers on two friends — white Charles (Riley Thomas Weber) and black Bobby (Jeffrey Robinson) — who hang out at one of the first integrated clubs in Harlem. Their friendship is challenged by the racial tensions that emerge when the club is threatened by a group of white Marines. They also spar over Anna (Renee Guittar), who happens to be white.
The lively swing dancing, choreographed by Regina Peluso, Collide's artistic director, is great fun, with flips and twirls and lifts and a whole lot of energy. There are moments where the dancers seem to literally fly through the air. Robinson, who has stage presence aplenty, is also quite a dancer, leaping to unbelievable heights.
He's matched only by Galen Higgins as Wyatt, the evil Marine who steals the show in the first act with "Mr. Pinstripe Suit," an incredible tap number he choreographed himself. Higgins is also the one performer who seems as comfortable acting as dancing, creating a character that the audience loves to hate.
The music, while full of fun and recognizable tunes, tends to be a little slow-paced for what Peluso is trying to do with the choreography. Still, vocalists Katie Carney and Ben Bakken keep the energy up, with Carney particularly exuding a powerhouse voice.
In all, the show proves that Collide Theatrical, for which this is their fifth production, has a ton of potential.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis writer.