ZinZanni puts on its best cabaret yet before pulling down the current Seattle tent

Headlined by Liliane Montevecchi, a Parisienne born for the part, the last show at its present location might be the best of ZinZanni's remarkable history. Here's the story of how circus, cabaret, and 1920s European sophistication came to find a flourishing home in Seattle.
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The current home of Teatro Zinzanni, in a former Cadillac dealership, and Liliane Montevecchi, the Parisian star of the last show at this location. (Top: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli. Bottom: William Anthony)

Headlined by Liliane Montevecchi, a Parisienne born for the part, the last show at its present location might be the best of ZinZanni's remarkable history. Here's the story of how circus, cabaret, and 1920s European sophistication came to find a flourishing home in Seattle.

We must pay attention to the man behind the curtain! That would be Norm Langill, the real-life "wizard" here in Seattle, entertaining and enlightening anyone who is smart enough to venture into the magical realm of a 1920s authentic cabaret tent bubbling on Sixth Avenue in the former Frederick Cadillac dealership. Langill is the visionary impresario behind One Reel, which produces Bumbershoot and other Seattle events. He has brought together, for this one last version of Teatro ZinZanni in this location, a cast perfectly suited for this phantasmagoria. How did it all begin? Langill first experienced one of the famed Speigeltents in Barcelona, Spain, during the 1992 Olympic Games. In the tent was a production titled "Pomp Duck & Circumstance," produced by a German restaurateur. It was touring out of Berlin and it changed Langill's life forever – and, subsequently, Seattle's. He negotiated for nearly six years with the Klessen family, who are the orginial builders of these portable Belgian gems, until one of the eight tents became available for a show here in Seattle. It was originally planned for the Green Lake beach behind the Bathhouse Theater – with the theater as an entrance, lobby, and dressing rooms. Despite approval by the city, however, he was denied a permit due to the possible disturbance to the duck population. (The German production, by the way, always serves duck for the five-course dinner entree. Perhaps Shore Management thought One Reel was going to attack and serve the local mallards.) Undaunted, Langill and company opened on Mercer Avenue, across from Seattle Center, in an empty lot. ZinZanni will return to that space in early November with yet another romping version of its show. The success of the Seattle venture has spawned a sister production in San Francisco, also produced by One Reel and running simultaneously on Embarcadero Square. The Seattle enterprise can boast of nearly 60 percent return customers, which is one reason why they must mount a fresh show every three or four months. To experience the atmosphere of a Speigeltent, originally built in 1910, is like a dream. Entering the lobby, you are immediately transported to Europe in the genuine era of '20s cabaret life (minus the smoke). In the tent with its wooden booths, velvet curtains, mirrored pillars, and moody lighting, the audience is mesmerized and transported back in time. A tiny hydraulic platform, center stage, is surrounded by well-set tables and bandstand against a wall. One never knows, for nearly three hours, that the clouds and rain of our Pacific Northwest are perpetually hanging over this magical world. After nearly nine years of housing some of the best circus/cabaret acts in the world, this version of Teatro ZinZanni has surpassed everything that preceded it. What makes this show a once-in-a-lifetime event is the astonishing presence of Liliane Montevecchi. A genuine Parisian-born star of the brightest magnitude, she was a teen-aged prima ballerina in Roland Petit's ballet company. In many years of performing, she has appeared with Fred Astaire in Daddy Longlegs and on Broadway many times under the direction of Tommy Tune, in Las Vegas, Europe, and of course Les Folies Bergere. No one could be more perfectly suited to inhabit this beautiful space with such genuine luminosity. Montevecchi returns to Europe at the close of this run to do her own personal show in Frankfurt and London. Chatting in a local coffee house, she commented on the beauty of Seattle's greenery and how comfortable she was playing in a piece of history. Especially with Les Castors, three utterly charming Parisian foot jugglers (they juggle each other) who offer her the opportunity to charm and flirt with handsome gentlemen from her own culture. It is not sure if she will be able to return to ZinZanni as the Prima Madonna of the tent extraordinaire, so this may be your last chance to see her in Seattle. Les Castors have a collective age of 149. Two of the brothers have several children who are pre-teens and only one has a grown son, who is also part of the family legacy. They come from five generations of circus performers. Eddy, the eldest and the one who spins his two brothers on his arches, claims to be working on a book about the family. Montevecchi in this particular spectacle well complements the others in the show with her grace, charm, and elegance. Frank Ferrante, who has played Cesar The Chef here and in San Francisco, has never been more outrageous. Ferrante has been touring as his own one-man show based on Groucho Marx for the past 20 years to high praise. When I asked him how that experience helped him create his roguish buffoon, he said Groucho's famous entrances, suggestive adlibs, gentle insults, and flirtatious antics all helped him evolve his new skin. Frank's characterization is a direct descendant from the "zannis" – or masked clowns – of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte. This version also features an amazing trapeze act, Duo Artemiev from Moscow; the superb Russian juggler and clown, Sergiy Krutikov; Oleg Izossimov, a hand-balancer, also from Moscow; Elena Serafimovich, a lovely contortionist from Minsk; plus Seattle's own Juliana Rambaldi singing the role of an opera diva. Wayne Doba and Andrea Conway met during a San Francisco version of the show and now make their home in Quebec. They now have a delightfully original vaudeville act featuring Andrea hanging from a chandelier and Wayne hoofing it up below. It is reminiscent of George Burns and Gracie Allen, with songs by Irving Berlin and a tap dancing finale that raises the roof. Louise Dilenge, an original member of the One Reel team, is the head designer of the vivid and impossibly extravagant outfits and oversees the look of the show from the maitre d' and all the sensuous serving staff (who often get into the act), to the décor in the opulent lobby and bar. Food is by Tom Douglas. Another plus is Norman Durkee, a Tacoma-bred composer and pianist, who leads his hand picked orchestra. If Louise produces the look of the evening, then Durkee is the glue that holds the entire shenanigans together. Durkee, a local icon, has never been more content, in his varied career, than playing nightly in the Speigeltent. He has managed to create a CD with the ladies who have performed as Madam ZinZanni: Ann Wilson, Liliane Montevecche, Joan Baez, Thelma Houston, Sally Kellerman, Rambaldi, and others. His band is so deft that one night, when the pre-recorded tape for an act of acrobats didn't come on, they simply improvised a tango and the flyers never missed a beat. In the past 10 years I have had the occasion to work on three such shows, including a Pomp Duck in Berlin and two in Seattle. I've seen at least 10 Speigeltent versions here and in Paris, New York, and Germany, and this latest is unquestionably the most sensational. The ticket price might be hefty ($104-$155), but the meal is fine, the atmosphere unique, and you won't find any show in the world as special as this version. The capacity of this antique, mirrored, and intimate theater is only a little more than 275 spectators. The show ends on Aug. 5. So as I peeled back the curtain and found the Wizard doing his tricks, Langill said to me, "I am just happy that Seattle audiences love to include new experiences in their world."


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