Cunio and Bethany Thomas Credit: Sandy Morris

The first time I saw Teatro ZinZanni, the eclectic variety-show dinner-theater circus extravaganza, was in 2000 in San Francisco. It was the waning days of the Clinton administration, where ZinZanni‘s steampunk-meets-vaudeville aesthetic, staged inside a glittering vintage spiegeltent resplendent with mirrors and chandeliers, felt in retrospect like a last gasp of go-go 90s optimism. The second time was at the show’s local premiere in 2019 at downtown’s Cambria Hotel, when we faced a much worse administration but at least weren’t worried about contracting a deadly virus from eating in public. 

ZinZanni reopened after the COVID-19 shutdown last summer with some of the same performers who had made the first Chicago installation such a hit, including Frank Ferrante as “The Caesar,” the libidinous host. As Reader freelancer Irene Hsiao noted in her review, “perhaps the greatest pleasures of the program refer to the sense of togetherness we can experience beyond the boundaries of the theater—the energy of others, a slow dance, a kiss on the cheek.”

Teatro ZinZanni
Open run: Wed-Sat 7 PM, Sun noon, Cambria Hotel, 32 W. Randolph, 312-488-0900, zinzanni.com/chicago, $69-$234 (includes a four-course meal). All audience members five and over must provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination; those unable to be vaccinated must provide proof of negative test and letter of medical or religious exemption.

Those pleasures are still present in this latest incarnation, which stars beloved Chicago belter Bethany Thomas as proprietress Madame Z, with drag performer extraordinaire Kevin Kent as head waiter Doily (think Flo from the 70s sitcom Alice, only pumped up to improbable dimensions in both physique and persona). Doily is eagerly awaiting the return of her son, Phénix (Cunio), who roars onstage on a motorcycle like a (much sexier) version of Meat Loaf’s Eddie from The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The entire outing this time feels much more glam rock than ragtime. Duo Rose (Sylvia Friedman and Samuel Sion) perform a jaw-dropping aerial display while Thomas belts out Heart’s “Crazy on You.” Cunio sings and works the silks simultaneously, with sinuous feline energy. (He’s been called “the spawn of Freddie Mercury and Janis Joplin,” and yeah, that works.) Acrobatic, aerial, and juggling interludes from Elena Gatilova, Marjorie Nantel, Noel Aguilar, and Michael Evolution (a basketball freestyler who nearly brought down the house) add to the sense of simple wonder and joy: people can DO that?

Kent, a Chicago theater vet from years past, proves a dab hand at picking victims from the audience who will become the target of Doily’s double-D entendres. (The night I attended, the couple who participated in a cinematic melodrama send-up were so good, I almost thought they were plants—even before they were introduced as Camilo and Camille. Rest assured, they were not.) Some of the bits went on a little long, but Kent is so ingratiating, it’s easy to forgive the excess.

It’s not the cheapest seat in town, but if you’ve been looking for an excuse to splash out on a date night, Teatro ZinZanni offers plenty of fun—and a chance for a little slow dance at the end. Surely we’ve all earned some extravagance and community.