by Milton W. Hamlin -
SGN A&E Writer
Radio Free Starlight
Through May 8
Teatro ZinZanni continues its 13th year of bringing 'love, chaos, and dinner' to Seattle audiences with its current Radio Free Starlight - a visit to a long-ago world where radio ruled and the zany comedians of ZinZanni starred on the airwaves (even in highly visual specialties). As usual, the kaleidoscopic combination of European vaudeville and modern-day gourmet dining makes a unique combination - a truly special one-of-a-kind night out on the town. Since Seattle first's ZinZanni show in 1998 and the later sister city editions in San Francisco, Teatro ZinZanni has served more than one million patrons. The two versions of ZinZanni - one in the Emerald City and the other in the City by the Bay - continue to top each city's entertainment calendar.
The all-new 'whirlwind of cirque, cabaret, and comedy' finds Northwest blues legend Duffy Bishop center stage as Madame ZinZanni, the owner of the spiegeltent (German for 'mirror tent'), the historic cabaret site that anchors the show in entertainment history and provides the launching point for this edition's madcap humor. Bishop, whose home base is actually Portland, makes a welcome Emerald City return and, as usual, rocks the house with numbers like 'The Blues In The Night,' 'You Don't Own Me,' 'Boom, Boom, Boom,' and even 'My Boyfriend's Back.' As usual with ZinZanni, anything goes - even with a 1940s radio setting, this ZinZanni mines girl group numbers from the 1960s with no concern for timeline accuracy. And, as usual, the eager audience eats up the show as well as the gourmet dinner.
Speaking of the dinner, Tom Douglas, celebrity chef of Seattle and the world of ZinZanni, is in top form with this outing. A plate of appetizers awaits each patron when seated - mussels, brie, shaved red onion, and cucumber spears 'drizzled with a light Balsamic vinegar.' Alternating with the show sequences, dinner proceeds with a soup course, this time a caramelized sweet onion soup with gruyere and toasted crouton garnish. More show, then it's salad time. More fun center stage, and then its the main course: a choice of prime beef tenderloin ('Delicious!' my guest of the evening proclaimed) or steelhead salmon with potato croquettes and green beans ('Ditto,' this writer noted). The vegetarian choice was a mushroom strata - a lasagna-type layering of mushrooms, cauliflower, and chard. More diversions throughout the tent and back in the center ring, and then came the 'High Frequency Molten Chocolate Cake.' Several side dishes are now offered a la carte, but the five-course dinner seemed terrifically self-contained at our press table. A full bar and select wines are available, either by the glass, by the bottle, or as part of the popular wine pairings.
As usual with the ZinZanni format, the vaudeville and cirque stars of the evening double appearances and even help the large wait staff with meal service. Some of the humor is scripted, many of the highlights are spontaneous - some from the audience participation sequences, some from outrageous ad-libs by the talented professionals.
The 'plot' of the evening revolves around a radio broadcast in the early 1940s. A spirited vocal version of 'Three Little Fishes' finds bouncing balls on stage for a 'follow the bouncing balls' sing-along. These, of course, become the props for a juggling sequence center stage (and numerous bad jokes). A later 'When You Wish Upon a Star,' with a stunning silver dress on the leading lady, turns into a quick strip number that finds our star now an aerialist in the center ring. Joe De Paul, a diminutive comedian with a towering talent, co-stars with Bishop as her 'sometimes husband.' His center-stage sequence is a take off of King Kong - with a decapitated Barbie doll standing in for scream Queen Fay Wray - and is the work of a true comic genius.
Another unforgettable performer in this outing is Manuela Horn, also known as the Austrian Amazon. Not only is the 6'2' actress a 'yodeling, dancing, acting, comedic force of nature' (as the program tells us), she is also a remarkable dominatrix. In a blonde wig and a leather get-up, she cheerfully punished a number of very willing young men in the audience, whipping them during the main course to the delighted squeals of girlfriends around the outer rim of the circus tent. Only at Teatro ZinZanni.
Mat Plendl, a hula-hoop champion, makes another welcome return to the magical world of ZinZanni. A star performer since he was 13, Plendl's act is one of those 'truly unique' events that lives on only in the rarefied world of live performance, even though he once starred on TV with shows hosted by Dinah Shore and Johnny Carson. Mrs. and Mr. Maier - a stone-faced waitress and a grinning waiter - return to ZinZanni for the eighth time. Their comic stunts are really a buildup to an incredible trapeze act. Bernard Hazens - juggling, acrobatics, and 'follow the bouncing ball' specialist - is another highlight. Ditto Seattle's Juliana Rambaldi, the 'opera diva' of the evening. Ditto ditto for Danielle Rueda-Watts, aerial acrobat and veteran of two different Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas.
The Orchestra DeVille deserves its own round of applause. Skillfully playing a wide variety of music - opera to blues to rock - the orchestra, under the direction of Norman Durkee, always adds a special spin to the evening. ZinZanni also uses select pre-recorded music for specialty acts, but the blend (and the sound level) is skillfully done.
Radio Free Starlight continues at the ZinZanni tent on Mercer across from the Seattle Center through May 8. ZinZanni also hosts an edited version as part of a Sweet Sunday Brunch 'on select dates.' A late-night cabaret show, Mezzo Lunatico, continues April 23 and May 28. A special Latin Dance Night (another way to use the historic tent) plays April 12 and May 17. Complete information on all ZinZanni events is available at (206) 802-0015 or www.zinzanni.org. Tickets start at just over $100 per person for the show and the full, five-course dinner, and go up and up. Brunch tickets are less money for most of the fun. Check it out. It's for a special evening or a special person.
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