Teatro ZinZanni: A pretty penny, but worth every one

Says, head chef Erik Carlson: "Food is one of the characters in the show."
Crosscut archive image.

Performers' photos on the back wall of Teatro ZinZanni

Says, head chef Erik Carlson: "Food is one of the characters in the show."

Tableside photography is not allowed at Teatro ZinZanni  "for the safety of the artists." So we're showing you one of the backstage bulletin boards instead. 

The current show is titled "Return to Paradise," a recounting of the 1962 World's Fair, with Christine Deaver, larger than life as Gracie Hansen, Big Mike Geier as Elvis, and Jen Ayers of the real-life, 2012 group Honey Tongue. You could detonate a fusillade of flash bulbs in their direction and they'd just light up even more. No, it's the acrobats and aerialists who'd be distracted, and you sure don't want that. 

These are Cirque du Soleil-level performers; that is to say, at the very top of their trade, which is to make you gasp.

We saw the amateur gymnasts on TV at the Olympics; these are professional-level athletes, up close and astonishingly personal. Christopher Phi (who doubles as Bruce Lee) contorts and does handstands at ground level; Elena Gatilova (in Priscilla Presley getup) and Rui Ling (a Pilates instructor in his off-hours) are breathtaking aerialists; Sam Payne and Sandra Feusi (a real-life couple) perform an erotic pole dance.

This all takes place over three hours in the Spiegeltent on Mercer, a shiny-shabby people's palace of raucous and bawdy entertainment across the street from the staid Opera House. Some 285 guests, four nights a week, are served a five-course dinner (well-paired with matching wines) by a troupe of actors (the "Galaxy Girls") while the entertainment unspools: music, pop songs from the Sixties, PG-rated jokes, suggestive dances and the spectacular aerial acts. 

Think back to Cafè Nordo, similarly nostalgic dinner theater which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago in Crosscut. 

Café Nordo shows have a homespun lack of pretense. Their characters remain resolutely in character, even during breaks. The scripts regularly assail the soul-destroying purveyors of fast food, even as the performers double as waitstaff and serve plates of "Nouvelle Roadhouse Cuisine" to the patrons. Brindley and Podgorski nuzzle right up to the line of self-parody but don't cross it.

At ZinZanni, there's none of that self-consciousness. The professional kitchen was originally under the direction of Tom Douglas and received high marks. For the past year and a half, the executive chef has been Erik Carlson, who'd worked in the Gordon Biersch organization and at Bellevue's Twisted Cork. "Food is one of the characters in the show," he says. His colleague Jamie-Paul Rizzo curates the wine and cocktail list with a good-natured tableside manner. 

Let's go back to 1972, when Seattle hired a quirky local non-profit called the One-Reel Vaudeville Show and its longhaired founder, Norm Langill, to produce a festival at Seattle Center called Bumbershoot that's still a highlight of the city's arts calendar.

In the off-season, Langill went on to a career as an actor, playwright and theatrical impresario. In Europe 20 years ago, he stumbled upon a Spiegeltent, an intimate, bejeweled circus tent easily assembled by traveling roustabouts with a wooden frame, canvas and mirrors. In 1998, having imported a pair of Spiegeltents from Belgium and from Austria, he produced his first shows in Seattle and San Francisco. Now, with a permanent location in Seattle's "Entertainment District," ZinZanni has become a fixture of merriment.

Tickets run from $100 to $150, depending on how close you sit to the center (and the wine flight adds $35). So this isn't exactly a spur-of-the-moment night out. To be clear: we were guests of the house on Friday night. But this would be a great place to take Aunt Minnie from Minneapolis if she wants to spend an evening immersed in Seattle's diverse, slightly wacky cultural community.

If you go: Teatro ZinZanni, 222 Mercer St., Seattle, 206-802-0015 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).