Circus

Review: Teatro Zinzanni Relaunches the Chicago Theater District With Fun, Fantasy and Food

“Of all the Spiegeltents in all the neighborhoods of Chicago, Cleopatra walks into Chef Caesar’s joint…” starts the Teatro Zinzanni program, and I think that statement sets the stage (the circular stage) just as well as any. Because now you know if you go to see this dinner theater performance on the 12th floor at the Hotel Cambria, and enter the lush, reflective environment of a mirrored wooden Spiegeltent, there will be funny, there will be fantasy, and there will be food.

Storm Marrero (Cleopatra come to life!) belts one out at Teatro Zinzanni.

But maybe what you don’t know yet is that there will be music, dance, circus, nostalgia and above all else, variety acts delivered with a dash of mayhem and a spicy attitude. The recently relaunched enterprise, which originally opened in 2019 in Chicago (1998 in Seattle) is the first to open back up in Chicago’s Loop, and it hits all of the marks for hungry audiences–those hungry for gourmet grub and booze, as well as those hungry for live entertainment. Perhaps just as important, the cast seemed just as hungry and relieved to provide that live entertainment, and all of the catharsis that comes from the temporary bonding achieved from mutually experienced live art, after a year plus of lockdown. The joyous way the performers reveled in the limelight made joining in the fun irresistible.

For the duration of this three-hour show and four-course meal, the audience was happy to be transported to another world and to enter a luxurious, intimate space where dinner theater is a staple of a good date night or an out-of-town visit. The whole team at Teatro Zinzanni has mastered that environment, from the impeccable and delicious meal provided by Debbi Sharpe of the Goddess and the Grocer to the flawless timing of each performance and each musical interlude. The dextrous pacing of the show mesmerizes with tone changes swinging from nostalgia to awe and from romance to mirth. But the real miracle to me is that after such a long hiatus, the wait staff and the cast never missed a beat, serving up personality and impressive feats as if they hadn’t just spent the past 15-plus months trapped on a sofa with potato chips and Netflix. In other words, they pulled it off.

Frank Ferrante aka Caesar basking in the limelight as usual.

The show’s host Caesar (Frank Ferrante-USA) typically gets a lot of credit for bringing the fast-paced, vaudeville-esque wit to the floor. His Tony Clifton routine, smarmy, full of bravado and ironic narcissism often walks a knife-edge, sparking guffaws one moment and groans the next, for Ferrante’s humor lies in his quick access to the thousands of ready-made puns in his repertoire that poke fun at his unwitting victims, the audience. To be fair, he plays equally upon the stereotypes we all recognize of humanity, the bald, the old, the long-haired, the cute young couples. But every so often he lurches into dangerous territory, accessing an extemporaneous pun from a bygone era aimed at a marginalized person and the communal cringe becomes a bit too real. Marco (Joe De Paul-Canada) on the other hand, an equally seasoned comedian (and show co-director) delivers a lovable underdog character that would much rather prefer to punch himself than to punch down. Watching him impersonate King Kong while rotating in slow motion, revealing his ordinary boxer shorts and potbelly along with his impotent rage and bewilderment inspires nothing less than love and admiration among the crowd, especially when juxtaposed with Caesar’s sharp tongue and the hard, fit bodies of the remaining cast who step up to reveal their circus superpowers one by one.

Cunio channels some Freddie Mercury energy.

Soon the farce unfolds and we meet the talent, Cleopatra herself (Storm Marrero) and her equally bedecked sidekick Cunio. Covered in Liberace-boosted Egyptian regalia, they glide slowly into the chaos and fun with dignified poses, and whenever they open their mouths to sing the audience leans in, gasps, smiles, sways along, followed by thunderous applause after each impeccable number. There is something unique about this juxtapositioned duo—first, their voices. Cunio’s Queen cover simply melted faces and Marrero’s range, (from her opera training) melded with her R&B vibe and shook the room for each and every song. But beyond their harmonious musicality was another unique juxtaposition–their appearances. They are “the others” compared to the predominantly white, traditionally gender-conforming cast just by virtue of who they are as people, Marrero is a plus-sized Black woman and Cunio triumphantly subverts gender norms in his costume and makeup expression—mixing corsets, tattoos, heels and gowns with stunning results. But their presence does not just represent an alternative to some mythic norm. They soar above the world of mere mortals with their luminous presence on stage, acting as a substantial counterbalance to Casear’s empty swagger– because these two artists put their money where their mouths are and deliver the goods while the ludicrous Caesar spends much of his time working the room trying to convince people to hail him.

Enter Coco (Mickael Bajazet–France) a sort of wannabe host, trying to edge his way into emceeing the event, tuxedo ready, charming, playful, inviting, and watch how he gets edged off the stage over and over again by the relentlessness of the show’s pacing. He is the everyman dreaming of the limelight but not aggressive enough to own it…The tension builds until finally, he has a moment to shine with a comedic magic routine and a moving flamenco-inspired dance scene with his partner that breaks all of the rules of gravity by mutating into a lively hand-to-hand act.

Throughout the farcical rhythms of the show, comes wave after wave of astounding circus–which has a great impact due to the closeness of the performers. Performing in such a glamorous circus space like the Spiegeltent Zazou means there is no fourth wall, and the frequent involvement of audience members in the show breaks that down even further. We’re all family there…there is (seemingly) no boundary between you and that half-naked Greek god in front of you. Just don’t make eye contact if you don’t want to get pulled up on stage and be an even bigger part of the show. But still, when you see a woman (Cassie Cutler–half of the Duo 19 partnership) walking on bottles 12 inches away on your actual dinner table, or when an aerial act swoops a few feet from your airspace, you can’t help but feel involved.

Duo 19’s finale act brings it all home

Vita Radionova (Ukraine) on hoops is so close that she can lock eyes with you while maneuvering the many props being tossed over heads to add to her growing multitude of wrangled hoops. Lea Hinz (Germany) on lyra performs eloquently, providing a moment of calm admiration for the riled up among us, and the finale act by Duo 19 is enough to make you pause mid-dessert bite and wonder why you haven’t been to the gym lately. Oliver Parkinson and Cassie Cutler (USA) bring down the house with their duo trapeze number that ventures out of the merely astounding and into the territory of groundbreaking by the combination of Russian cradle and trapeze skills that they bring to the act. In any space it would be gasp-inducing, but in such an intimate space, the physicality of their romantic trapeze act (handyman and maid fall for each other) becomes a culmination of sorts–of all of the tension built throughout the show between characters and comedy, drama and music, circus and schtick. It’s a comforting moment where all ends well, with love. Although Teatro Zinzanni has not published a name for the new iteration of their show yet, the previous name from the 2019 launch, Love, Chaos and Dinner, seems apt here. Many of the show elements from back then persist as well–although some new twists have been added along with new cast members.

Teatro Zinzanni is brought to us by Randolph Entertainment with Norman Langill (founder artistic director), and Stanley Feig (executive producer), with spot-on musical direction by Hans Teuber, dazzling costumes by Debra M. Bauer, perfectly envisioned lighting by Peter Braciliano, and most of all, well-orchestrated stage management by John Gruber. The dinner theater experience is likely to continue to rebound and thrive in Chicago, where there is never a shortage of out-of-town visitors, impressive date nights, local luminaries, significant anniversaries and lively work outings to warrant such an opulent, elegant, yet irreverent night on the town.

Tickets range from $69 (show only) to $189. The show runs at 7pm Wednesday through Sunday; doors open for cocktails at 6pm. The theater is located in the Hotel Cambria in Chicago’s Theater District at 32 W. Randolph St.

This article was previously published on CircusTalk News.

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  1. I don’t engage with bloggers but in this case I will make an exception. And I make the exception because the blogger in question suggests here publicly that my comedy performance borders on racism. This is a blatant misrepresentation. Let me start off by stating that I am a card carrying member of the NAACP, contribute to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Along with my teenage children I march for BLM, Women’s rights, gay rights, appeared in gay pride parades from Seattle to San Francisco and raised funds for charitable social causes with Joan Baez. So you can imagine my concern and distress as an ally/advocate reading here – without the blogger citing the moment or undermining “joke” – that I in character picked on a marginalized party attending a performance. I would be happy to share my exchange with the blogger with anyone interested, but I shall sum it up here.

    I contacted the blogger to ask what the offending remark was. After all, these are tricky times and in my 37 years of interactive comedy performance I’ve never been called out for humor that marginalizes. If indeed I had said something hurtful to a marginalized person, I want to know so I can address and potentially cut the bit or line from my act. My response from the blogger: “Unfortunately, I cannot remember the actual pun you used…I think it had something to do with Black music origins.” My response: “I wish you could remember what you think I said as well because it’s a serious thing for me. That part of my act is marginalizing. That’s a strong statement to make publicly in this day and age. I think we’re all wanting to make a difference.”

    The blogger’s subsequent response: “Ah! I remember! It was the lynching joke on Thursday.” My response: “Yes, I remember exactly. An elderly white male whose occupation was rope-making told me he ‘wanted to hang’ me. And I said sarcastically and I quote, “Yes, nothing like a good lynching reference (in the middle of a show).” It was my attempt I thought to call him out and diffuse the moment. “I also referred to him as ‘looking like every Republican Senator.’ So, I hope you can see I was attempting the opposite affect than you experienced…I hope you can see that I was not advocating for lynching but calling out an old white guy making reference to hanging someone. My daughter was sitting across from a table of four people of color who laughed at that joke.”

    I further wrote: “It saddens and disappoints me…that you could not think of the reference that offended you – telling me at first that it was a pun having to do with “Black music origins.” And when you finally remembered my joke, it turns out the remark was not a pun or a reference to black music or directed at any marginalized person. In fact, my remark sarcastically pointed up the inappropriate nature of my white volunteer’s comment. I hope you will acknowledge your misrepresentation. Finding me unfunny is one thing. Publicly accusing me of marginalizing when it is not the case is damaging. Writers today need to be just as sensitive, accurate in these times as performers.”

    I find it quite ironic that in this same blog one of the male performers was referred to as having a “potbelly.” Said performer was hurt by the blogger’s fat shaming. Perhaps, this attempt to cancel could be reserved for those who deserve it not allies.

    Sincerely,
    Frank Ferrante

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