Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.
By Elizabeth Ellis
Take a big scoop of vaudeville, add in a heap of 20th-century cabaret, sprinkle in some circus feats, whisk in some home-grown improv, and the result will be the delightful and amazing Teatro ZinZanni’s LOVE, CHAOS, & DINNER at the new Spiegeltent ZaZou, tucked away on the 14th floor of the Cambria Hotel Chicago Loop. This wild, hilarious, and gorgeous production brings together the best in music, physical comedy, and audience interaction, and includes a fantastic four-course meal to boot. This is the sort of show that, because of its excellent production values, top-notch talent, and genuine warmth and humor, could easily become a beloved theatrical tradition.
During renovations above the Nederlander Theatre, workers were stunned to discover a giant performance space, unused for decades. This area became the home for Spiegeltent ZaZou, the arena which now houses Teatro ZinZanni. “Spiegel” means “mirror” in German, and many elaborate mirrors decorate the elegant, richly appointed Deco-inspired Spiegeltent. Many candles bathe the space in a warm glow, which adds to the feeling of traveling backward in time. Tables are set on several levels, and if your party is four or less, you may share a table with other diners. If you’re seated near the stage, you will be constantly amazed at how effectively the artists use the tight quarters. The actual stage in the center is small: approximately eight feet, but the performers utilize the height of the tent brilliantly for the aerial acts. Ramps that splay out from the center rise and fall, allowing many opportunities for entrances, exits, and surprises — like artists who double as food servers ascending a ladder or pole and focusing on you, cat-like, as you enjoy your meal.
Your emcee, guide, and emperor for the evening is the wonderfully flamboyant green-suited Caesar (the excellent Frank Ferrante), who possess not only razor-sharp timing but impressive improvisational skills. He brings several circumspect but good-natured audience members onstage in what could be truly uncomfortable moments of comedy, but Ferrante’s warmth and gentle good humor put everyone watching at ease. The mistress of the feast is the commanding Lady ZinZanni (the wonderful powerhouse vocalist Lady Rizo, a.k.a. Amelia Zirin-Brown). Her raw and beautiful voice echoes Adele and Lady Gaga, and she wears her sultry swagger with rhinestone-accented ease. Another magnificent voice belongs to hometown girl Kelly Britt, whose soaring arias balance out the risque comedy with a touch of class and elegance. The awesomely talented slapstick duo of physical comedians Mr. P.P. and Joe (Tim Tyler and Joe De Paul, respectively) play off each other’s differences, with the rangy beanpole Mr. P.P. bringing to mind a younger John Cleese, as Joe embodies Mr. P.P.’s opposite as a Bud Abbott doppelganger. The entertainment becomes more breathtaking as it rises above the audience. Elena Gatilova, a former member of Cirque de Soleil, creates exquisite and intricate moves with a hoop suspended from the ceiling. Trapeze performers Duo Rose, also from Chicago, seem to move as one as they swing above and below the trapeze, cutting gorgeous, swirling shapes in the air. The Anastasini Brothers engage in both tumbling and juggling in such a tiny sliver of the stage, you can’t believe they won’t fall into your salmon, but their physical expertise is astounding. Live modern and period music comes from the impressive six-piece Orchestra Deville, as much a character as anyone on stage.
Director Norm Langill assembled some amazing artists who execute the theme of the night magnificently, and Christine Joly de Lotbiniere’s jaw-droppingly beautiful costumes provide a memorable and visual feast (I can’t imagine the budget for only the sequins and crystals). Dreya Weber’s intricate choreography utilizes the space beautifully, and Shauna Frazier’s dark and rich set designs easily evoke an elegant restaurant inside the slightly shabby grandeur of an old-time circus tent.
Chef Debbie Sharpe of the Goddess and Grocer has curated a terrific four-course dinner; an equally elaborate brunch is offered at the matinee performances. The dinner options include pasta with sausage, grilled salmon, short ribs, and a chicken breast. A tasty hummus with veggies, a simple but satisfying green salad, and a slice of vanilla cheesecake topped with salted caramel popcorn rounds out the meal on a perfectly sweet note. Beverages, bread, and appetizers are available at an additional price. The wine/beer/cocktail list boasts some excellent selections, both new and familiar. This is not an inexpensive endeavor; dinner tickets run from $99-$193 per person. However, if you calculate the price of tickets for both a superb dinner plus a professional live performance downtown, it’s a more than reasonable comparison.
The show is advertised as running two and a half hours, but the 7 pm opening night didn’t end until well after 10 pm. A few bits can be trimmed; some of Caesar’s audience interactions can be shorter and tighter, and as delightful as they are individually and together, a scene with Mr. P.P. and Joe and many crackers could be edited out with no injury to the show as a whole. Those are minor quibbles that don’t take away from the thoroughly enjoying evening. As the show’s run progresses, plans are in place to revamp the production several times a year. The tightening up – which, truth be told, probably needs only to take into account the considerable time of audience responses – can make this show an absolute must-see.
Teatro ZinZanni’s “Love, Chaos, and Dinner” is currently on sale through September 29. Tickets and more info at zinzanni.com.