BWW Reviews: TEATRO ZINZANNI Orders Up an Awesome Buffet of 'Love, Chaos, and Dinner'
Let's be honest. When someone mentions the words "dinner theater," a few not-so-flattering things come to mind that makes many avoid them, even at a discounted cost. There's the lukewarm, banquet hall cuisine. The noisy clashing of silverware amidst rude, talkative patrons. And then there's the actual show itself, which sometimes falls somewhere between an elementary school play and a low budget community center production.
That sad scenario, of course, is thankfully nowhere near the same zip code—let alone the same quirky universe—as the ultra chic TEATRO ZINZANNI, a peculiar yet enjoyably unique new-to-the-OC theatrical experience that throws music, comedy, cabaret, vaudeville, and circus acts into a blender and mashes it up into a über-heightened though intimately-set concoction.
The three-hour-plus extravaganza of food, frolic, and fun is so thoroughly entertaining, that it's hard to point out which of its many features is the best. It's no wonder, then, that this big hit that ran for years in Seattle and San Francisco has just been given a much deserved extended engagement through February 17, 2013 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts' outdoor plaza in Costa Mesa.
Truly art-sy, without being overly abstract or annoyingly pretentious (like, say, those other, more infamous big-top, tent shows whose, ahem, Big Important Themes cause many eye-rolls), TEATRO ZINZANNI is a fresh, more engaging approach to site-specific entertainment that uses seemingly old-school theatrics but with a modern, self-aware spin. This high-concept show brilliantly marries close-proximity circus acts, scripted bits and choreographed trickery with lots of opportunities for improvised moments and audience participation. The latter is definitely inescapable—considering the performers roam about each table of patrons and interact with you, frequently in search of their next anxious "volunteer" to join them in the spotlight.
In this all-new show conceived especially for this particular run in Costa Mesa, TEATRO ZINZANNI's high-caliber, highly-skilled international cast of talented musicians, singers, and circus performers serve up an awesome buffet of "Love, Chaos, and Dinner" within an intimate space that's part Moulin Rouge, part roaring 20's speakeasy. Before you even step into the colorfully imposing Palais Nostalgique Spiegeltent—that is, the tent that has been erected on the vacant dirt lot next to the concert hall (it holds only 285 guests at a time), you'll know right away that you've entered a much classier joint than you're average dinner-and-show combo.
Within this century-old Belgian tent revitalized by creative director Norm Langill, TEATRO ZINZANNI explodes as a very whimsical, magical playground that gets a bit wild and bawdy—but never, ever crosses the taboo line. (But with that said, do leave the kids at home—treat this as a classy, special night out for you and your 18-and-over pals and significant others).
A small raised stage that is situated on the opposite side of the entrance-way is home to the 4-person house band, led by band leader Ron Levy, that occasionally hosts either a make-shift talk show, a stand-up routine, or, of course, a musical performance. But for the most part, much of the show's significant action pieces occur either high above you or within a small space in the center that is quickly transformed by a black-attired crew into a mini-stage where much of the feigned drama and feats of superhuman wonder unfold. It's really difficult to get a bad seat in the tent with all the tables and booths cascading outward in the round—a great advantage for a show inside a tent.
Everything from the way you're escorted to your table to the way many of the dishes are served (the wait staff are part of the act), to the gorgeous atmosphere of the tent's interior decor makes for a special, fully-involved show experience. Guests—often encouraged to come dressed up in fancy duds with hats and feathers and the ilk—are told that they are in attendance of a "live" taping of an old-timey radio show for fictional station Radio Zinzanni, even though, musically, the show takes generous liberties with the timeline.
The show's "storyline" is, uh, forgivably flimsy for sure: something about a magic elixir being passed around that allows its drinker to be bolder and less inhibitive, which in turn lead to vignettes about these awkward crushes turning into real love... yada, yada, yada... But, I mean, really, all of that chaos and love is just an excuse to frame the rapid-fire succession of incredible acts that comprise the evening's eye-popping cirque pieces.
And like the rest of TEATRO ZINZANNI's dichotomous traits, the musical performances are also each an inspired mash-up of old and new; here, jazz numbers morph into hard-rock anthems then back again. Before you know it, opera makes an appearance, too.
There are 11 distinct performers in all, each armed with a different talent skill that will no doubt wow you no matter which specific act feather-tickles your fancy. Out front is Duffy Bishop, who performs here as head matron and harried nightclub chanteuse "Queenie." A legendary singer in the world of Blues, Bishop's jaw-droppingly good solos and rock-tinged belting is the true musical glue of the show. As disparate as "Voodoo Child," "Venus," and "Stardust" are, this grand dame sings each with equal ferocity.
Providing much of the comedy is master improviser Kevin Kent, who morphs into several camp-tastic "characters" during the show, but almost always breaks the fourth wall to engage his "victims" in the audience. His best schtick is definitely when he emerges later as the Queen of Hearts—in full drag and matching attitude. I guarantee that your belly will ache laughing during this entire sequence, especially once he, er, I mean she, is joined by a deer-in-headlights "volunteer" from the audience.
Also outstanding are Juliana Rambaldi, as cute-sy Veronica, who surprises everyone later when she busts out a brilliant Operatic Soprano on "Nessun Dorma," and the towering Manuela Horn, a fast-yodeling Austrian shepherd-turned-dominatrix (yep, you read that right) Brigitte Longstraumph—who's as funny and sexy as she is scary and intimidating. She is so out-there fierce, I think I want to chat her up for coffee one afternoon.
Rounding out the performers are adorkable, Australian-accented Joel Salom who plays emcee Mack McReady, a smoldering charmer of a guy with the little-known talent of striptease juggling (it's pretty damn amazing); Ukranian contortionist Vita Radionova, whose physical dexterity luckily speaks volumes since she keeps pretty mute throughout the show (she plays Venus, an alien creature that, um, Salom's character falls madly in love with); and the singing/juggling/tumbling trio Les Petits Frères (Domitil Aillot, Gregory Marquet, and Mickael Bajazet) who spend much of the evening one-upping each other with pratfalls, silly pranks and physical tricks.
And lastly, the show offers comedy/trapeze aficionados the Die Maiers, Sabine Maier and Joachim Mohr. The real-life couple play, respectively, a melancholy mute French maid and the bumbling "sound engineer" in love with her—to, of course, hilarious results. Once the couple take to the air in one of the funniest "accidental" trapeze acts I've ever seen, you can't help but stand up and cheer for them. They are, by far, my personal favorite act of the show.
As for the dinner part of "Love, Chaos, and Dinner," TEATRO ZINZANNI's luxe five-course gourmet offerings—courtesy of Chef Joachim Splichal's Patina Catering—are, for the most part, delightfully delicious. Each dish is whimsically named as a tie-in with the show and, upon arrival, carry on the show's fancy-leaning vibe as well.
The appropriately decadent meal begins early with the "Intergalactic Surprise," a Beet and Goat Cheese Terrine on top of a bed of Pop Rocks paired with an Orange "Sphere." This is followed by "Zuppa Di Fortuna," the "Segerstrom" Lima Bean Soup garnished with a crunchy Bacon Chip. The soup's texture was a bit on the powdery side, proving to be the only slight minus of the otherwise amazing courses (though that bacon chip really hit the spot, I must say). The "Garden of Delight" Salad course was a mixture of Greens and Shaved Endive with Grapes, Apples, Gorgonzola, Candied Walnuts, and a "Green Goddess" Dressing. Light and lovely.
The main entrée I chose, appropriately enough, was the star attraction of my culinary journey. Patrons will have three options for their main dish included in the price of admission: "Radio Waves," the Prime Beef Short Rib; the "ZinZanni Catch," the Salt-BakEd Scottish Salmon; or the meat-free "Teatro Venezio," a nice serving of Butternut Squash Raviolis. (Luckily, my table-mates ordered a variety from the menu, so I had a chance to look at—but not taste—the other items the show offered).
For some reason, though, I must have mis-read my menu and opted for the Filet Mignon as a substitute for the Short Rib—which I later found out was actually an optional up-charged "enhancement." But, thank goodness for such happy accidents because the perfectly-cooked piece of beef I had doused with Mushroom Red Wine Sauce atop a Truffle Potato Fondue and Baby Carrots were absolutely divine. (Their menu also allows for a Petite Lobster Tail as another add-on).
The meal's final course—the dessert, appropriately named "On The Air" considering how amusingly it's delivered to your table—was a decadent Chocolate Cake topped with a Chocolate Macaroon, Caramelized Hazelnuts, Chocolate Sauce, and Vanilla Chantilly Cream. A perfect closer to a fun evening.
Gorgeously designed, richly appointed, and brilliantly performed, TEATRO ZINZANNI is a special occasion event you will savor from start to finish. Though, yes, it's brand of modernized vaudeville is a decadent, expensive night out (tickets start at $123), you'll definitely get your money's worth with its gourmet five-course meal spread out within a three-hour variety show on steroids that will send you into super sensory overload. It's so fast-paced that lulls in between sets don't have much of a chance to creep in, because while either eating or interacting with the performers or the people in your table, the whole thing feels like a self-contained party.
There's also beauty in the sharing of this "community entertainment"—that ability to turn to your neighbor and smile and laugh and enjoy together a one-of-a-kind experience. I would be remiss if I didn't mention how fortuitous it was that during the press performance, I was randomly placed at the same table as a super-nice couple who decided to take in the show as their special way to celebrate their 35th Wedding Anniversary. They shared that they had seen and were wowed by TEATRO ZINZANNI up in the Bay Area some years ago and had decided to treat themselves to this iteration of the show when they found out about its Costa Mesa engagement.
From the looks of things, I think it's safe to say the two adorable lovebirds had a really great time. And though I felt like I intruded on their special evening, I just wanted to reiterate again how honored I was to share this amazing show experience with them and thank them for their kindness.
And thanks to the show's now extended run, Southern California thrill-show seekers will have plenty more chances to check it out for themselves, too!
Performances of TEATRO ZINZANNI: "Love, Chaos, and Dinner" at The Segerstrom Center for the Arts have been extended through February 17, 2013. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am PST). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos courtesy of SCFTA/Mark & Tracy Photography. From Top: Kevin Kent (as Queen of Hearts); the Die Maiers; the wait staff serve up dinner; Manuela Horn (as Brigitte Longstraumph).