After many years in Seattle, Teatro ZinZanni recently pitched its colorful spiegeltent in Redmond’s Marymoor Park. The engagement there continues through April, with its future home yet to be announced.
Before you dig into the appetizer of roasted pumpkin and winter squash with fresh ricotta cheese, or sip your first cocktail, jugglers and clowns drift by your table, pausing now and then to engage in a little comic repartee with diners. And by the time you’ve tucked into your rich chocolate dessert, a swoon-worthy couple (Duo Madrona) has swung above you on the flying trapeze, Postmodern Jukebox chanteuse Ariana Savalas has serenaded you, and a nearly 7-foot-tall lady yodeler (Manuela Horn) has pranced around in dominatrix gear.
It is all in a night’s entertainment for Teatro ZinZanni, the long-running “Love, Chaos, and Dinner” experience for revelers in a glittery, antique Belgium cabaret tent.
Little except the locale has shifted, though that geographical shift has been a major undertaking and risk for the dinner-show extravaganza, a multimillion-dollar operation that had operated in Lower Queen Anne for some seven years, where it brought in 60,000 patrons in 2016. Where the fun will unfurl beyond 2018 is still up in the air.
IF YOU GO
Teatro ZinZanni: ‘Love, Chaos, and Dinner’
At Marymoor Park, Redmond, through April 27; Tickets start at $99 for dinner and show (206-802-0015 or zinzanni.com)
Conceived in Seattle, and premiered here in 1998 at a former Cadillac dealership in Belltown, Teatro ZinZanni recently pitched its colorful spiegeltent in Redmond’s Marymoor Park. The engagement there continues through April, and an agreement with King County Parks (which manages Marymoor) allows for another limited run next winter (and perhaps beyond) in the same spot.
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But since this unique mingling of circus derring-do, interactive and sometimes bawdy comic high jinks and a multicourse dinner has moved, have fans followed? ZinZanni’s founder and artistic director Norm Langill says the answer is yes.
“We’ve had a full house almost every night here, and we’re happy with the location,” he said. “We’ve always had a large following on the Eastside. But even in rush hour you can usually drive straight here from Seattle on Highway 520 doing 60 miles an hour.”
The numbers bear him out. At Marymoor, tickets purchased by Eastsiders have nearly doubled as a percentage of overall attendance from about 16 percent in 2016 to 35 percent, according to figures provided by the company. Meanwhile, Seattle patronage has dipped only slightly, from about 25 percent to 20 percent.
A temporary home
If Langill is upbeat now, things weren’t so rosy for Teatro ZinZanni last winter. After occupying a prime spot on Mercer Street since 2010, the company learned that its landlord, Seattle Opera, had sold the lot. Langill had earlier expressed interest in buying the land and making it ZinZanni’s permanent Seattle home. But a deal never materialized, and the property was purchased for $16.2 million by a real-estate development company, Washington Holdings.
ZinZanni requested a lease extension into 2018 but had to vacate last March. The new owners wanted to start predevelopment work on the site for a large new apartment complex.
Today, Langill’s hunt is still on for a permanent ZinZanni home, no small order given sky-high Seattle-area land values. But the temporary berth at Marymoor was in some ways a no-brainer.
It has ample parking (at $15 a slot), on-site utilities, and scant local competition for an upscale dinner-theater attraction. This corner of the Redmond park has also been used successfully by the much larger, globe-trotting Montreal circus troupe Cirque du Soleil, and by Cavalia, a popular touring horse exhibition.
“The smaller scale of ZinZanni’s operation was definitely appealing as we considered their request,” said Ryan Dotson, development program manager of King County Parks. “They seat only a couple hundred people a night, and there are fewer cars. And the fall-winter period is a slower time of year for events at the park.”
According to Dotson, ZinZanni is paying an undisclosed “facility fee” to occupy the site, and all parking revenues also go to King County Parks. He underscored that the schedule allows tenants like Cirque du Soleil to return again for a future run (no dates are set), and continued presentation of the annual summer Marymoor Park Concerts series.
Relocating ZinZanni’s festive, wood-paneled show tent to Redmond this fall was a major effort. But the portable venue, on long-term lease from the Klessens family of Belgium, which built it in 1910 and has owned it for generations, “is an amazing structure that can support two tons from the center,” said Langill. “It fits into two, 40-foot trailers. It comes apart quickly, and in theory it only takes three guys to put it up.”
The greater challenge has been securing and hooking up the outbuildings needed. They include facilities to whip up the four-course meal designed by James Beard Award-winning local chef Jason Wilson, included in the price of the ticket. (ZinZanni tickets start at $99, with prices depending on date and seating option.)
“We’ve learned a lot during the Marymoor installation, and now we have our own mobile kitchen and mobile bathrooms,” said Langill.
He also emphasized that picking up stakes and moving on is a circus tradition. Among the core talent pool of about 60 cast members who rotate through ZinZanni’s shows are numerous comedians, contortionists, jugglers and aerial artists who have also toured the world with Cirque du Soleil and other troupes. And many of the cooks, waiters, bartenders, musicians and others in a total workforce of about 100 hired for each show are also ZinZanni regulars.
But if the staff members keep returning, so do many of the patrons. At an early December performance, some audience members said they had driven long distances to be there (including an Eastern Washington couple), while others said it was their third or fourth visit to a ZinZanni show. (The show changes seasonally, following a similar format but with changes of cast, menu and theme.)
Most of the revelers are just fine with becoming part of the act, in lightly risqué skits and table-side encounters with costumed performers.
Recently, however, an audience member wrote on her Facebook page that Voronin, the show’s magician and maitre’d, made her uncomfortable by being too touchy-feely with her in a way that felt sexual. In response to such negative feedback, Voronin issued an apology to anyone he had offended, saying it was unintentional, according to The Stranger.
ZinZanni vice president of operations Annie Jamison also said the company is “eliminating interactions the Maitre d’ has with guests that could create discomfort, especially for women,” and is adjusting the plot and script of the current show to address such concerns, The Stranger reported.
Michelle Leyva, the show’s publicist, said more recently that in addition to those changes, ZinZanni has added some more information about what guests can expect from the show to its website and its preshow confirmation email to ticket buyers.
A longterm home?
Ever since hatching the idea for ZinZanni, which began as a project of the nonprofit One Reel organization and is now a for-profit business, Langill has hoped to secure permanent sites for it in multiple Western cities.
After years of bureaucratic red tape that dream may come to fruition in San Francisco, where a second ZinZanni company held forth from 2000 to 2011 at Pier 29, along the Bay. In 2016, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Port Commission gave their preliminary endorsement of ZinZanni’s plan to become part of a proposed new hotel complex on the Embarcadero waterfront.
“We’ll have a spiegeltent in a glass gazebo at the end of the hotel, so the public driving by can see what’s going on backstage and get interested in the show,” Langill explained. “We’re hoping to be in there in 2019 or 2020. We’re looking at a 66-year lease, and though it’s been a slow process it’s worth the wait to get that kind of a commitment.”
Ironically, in the booming Puget Sound region where the show started and handles its business affairs, finding a longterm home may prove more difficult. Given the escalating land values, it may require ZinZanni to piggyback on another development project, and endure another long wait. But Langill has no intention of sitting it out. He said he may have found (but isn’t ready to announce) a local ZinZanni site for the summer. And he hopes to return the tent to Redmond late next year for a second run at Marymoor.
The Seattle-based impresario, who formerly oversaw years of Bumbershoot festivals and Seattle pier concerts as head of One Reel, strongly believes there’s an ongoing appetite for his zany-glam spectacles.
“There’s just things you can do in ZinZanni that you can’t in other forums,” Langill said. “This is what interests me most, how in this age of cellphones and laptops and streaming you can reach people emotionally, and create a live, common ground experience with strangers.”