Dinner. Theater. Whisper those two words in the ear of any self-respecting theatergoer and you're likely to get a reaction reserved for straight-to-video movies. The stage equivalent of Wonder Bread, the much-maligned genre brings to mind an unappetizing mix of congealed clam chowder, unfunny culinary jokes, and whooping renditions of "Fly Me to the Moon" by has-been soap stars, all washed down with one too many Tom Collinses made with well gin. It is generally believed that the most enduring memory of such an evening's entertainment is the hangover.
Eager to distance itself from the stigma of the "chicken dinner and a Broadway show for $3.95!" (a genuine slogan used by Chicago dinner theater entrepreneur William Pullinsi back in the 1950s, if you can believe it) the live entertainment producer One Reel has worked hard over the last decade or so to infuse the curdling genre with something approaching theatro-gastronomic panache. Teatro ZinZanni, One Reel's gourmet, circus-and-vaudeville-infused theatrical experience, shuns the bland "dinner theater" descriptor for the more palate-tickling "Love, Chaos & Dinner" tagline. Its San Francisco venue at Pier 29 on the Embarcadero isn't just a tourist bus stop; ZinZanni apparently caters mostly to local audiences. I was quite surprised to hear that 50 to 75 percent of the show's attendees come from the Bay Area. But the fact that almost every audience participant hauled up onstage came from San Francisco or its immediate environs suggests that there may be some truth to this statistic.
The evening's entertainment unfolds not in the football-stadium-sized, booby-trapped barns typical of so many dinner theater venues of old, but rather in the jewel-box opulence of a beautifully restored velvet-, glass-, mirror-, and wood-embellished "Spiegeltent." Fewer than ten of these gorgeous structures, built in Belgium at the start of the 20th century as mobile dance halls, exist today. ZinZanni promotes itself as the place to go for that special night out — but it also comes with a hefty price tag. At $123 to $197 a head excluding drinks and service, it isn't for the traditional dinner theater "unlimited buffet" crowd.
So much for the pretty packaging. But what about the main ingredients — the entertainment and the food? Has ZinZanni succeeded in rescuing the reputation of dinner theater? Maybe the format will forever induce reactions akin to those of my husband, Jim, who, upon being asked to join me for a performance of the latest ZinZanni show, Hail Caesar!, shared his memories of his only previous experience of dinner theater. Though unable to recollect anything about the evening he spent at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Jupiter, Florida, as a boy, he does remember throwing up in the car on the way home. I am happy to report that Hail Caesar! did not turn into Hurl Caesar! the night we attended — the five-course meal was pretty good, in fact. Unfortunately, the performers' puns were as tired as my own.
ZinZanni has largely kept audiences coming over the past eight years by tweaking a tried-and-true format. The menu of French-Californian cuisine is rotated every couple of months and features well-executed, crowd-pleasing fare. The evening I attended, a crispy-tangy lemon chicken dish, well-spiced lentil soup, and subtly flavored asparagus mousse more than made up for the uneventful green salad and doughy apricot tart. Similarly, the show sees an overhaul, castwise, about four times a year. The judicious hiring of many talented and occasionally well-known performers from the worlds of circus, cabaret, and music has helped to keep the Spiegeltent playing to its 285-seat capacity on many an evening. Singer-songwriter Joan Baez, Ann Wilson from the rock group Heart, Folies Bergères veteran Liliane Montevecchi, and famed clown Geoff Hoyle have all performed under the ZinZanni banner.
The current Egyptian-themed version of the show, based loosely and somewhat pointlessly on the love affair between Cleopatra and "Chef" Caesar, combines the sensual-brash cabaret singing talents of Debbie de Coudreaux (the only American other than Josephine Baker to have starred at the Moulin Rouge in Paris) with the foul-mouthed vaudevillian swagger of ZinZanni old-timer Frank Ferrante. What little plot the show has is quickly subsumed by the happy business of eating, drinking, and watching Ferrante and De Coudreaux' capable supporting cast of clowns, acrobats, and contortionists perform daredevil exploits mere feet beyond our dinner plates. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of the ZinZanni formula is its intimacy. When the members of the French tumbling trio Les Petits Frères (Gregory Marquet, Mickael Bajazet, and Domitil Aillot) stand on each other's shoulders and then pitch themselves headlong to the floor in formation (with no crash mats, I might add, to cushion their contact), desserts and coffee cups also threaten to fly. And there's nothing quite like glimpsing a slick of antiperspirant inside Ukrainian contortionist Vita Radionova's left armpit to remind us that the bewitching performer isn't a freak of nature but a real human being after all.
Thanks to the professionalism of all the performers (including the tight five-piece jazz orchestra and the entire waitstaff, who perform their tasks with vivaciousness and care), the gorgeousness of the setting, the decent cuisine, and copiously flowing booze, it's difficult to emerge unhappy from an evening at the Spiegeltent. Yet the organization's reliance on the formulaic is what ultimately prevents ZinZanni from taking the dinner theater format to new heights. The performance would be significantly improved by a more carefully integrated plot, one that seamlessly weaves the entertainment into the delivery of each culinary course, with less reliance on lengthy and often embarrassing audience participation sequences. And while lines like "I'm just arugula guy" and "Kiss my asp" are in fittingly poor taste, fewer bad puns would help my husband erase his last unsavory memory of the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre once and for all.