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.