Last Night: 'Sultry Summer Magic' at SF's Teatro Zinzanni

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Ukranian illusionist Eugeniy Voronin in Teatro Zinzanni's "Sultry Summer Magic"
As Teatro Zinzanni's new show, "Sultry Summer Magic," came to a close beneath the giant spiegeltent (that's the fancy Belgian word meaning "mirror tent") at Pier 29 Wednesday night, I only had one question. Why had I lived in San Francisco for more than a year and never been given a proper explanation - via friends, newspapers, or even marketing - of this show?

 

As I sat down to write about it, though, I quickly figured out the answer. Beyond the fact that tickets range from $117 to $167, which means that the attendants are mostly tourists and filthy rich people with whom I don't normally associate, there are two barriers to learning about Zinzanni. The first is that the broad words that likely come to mind to describe it - mysterious! surprising! wondrous! - are practically meaningless. If someone told me that performance was full of mystery and surprise, I probably smiled, ignored that person, and forgot about it.

 

But the other option - to tell somebody about the specifics - seems an even greater disservice. It would taint the best part of Zinzanni, which is, aside from the incredible talent of its performers, its sheer unpredictability. What is given away and not given away needs careful balancing, perhaps as careful as a performance of, say, the tango on a trapeze (which is, in fact, part of the show).

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Surrounded by all the glitz and glamour of Paris in the 20s, the show is equal parts vaudeville, cirque, burlesque, and cabaret. It meanders and twists radically in mood and material with the help of a both a live jazz band and some brilliant direction. Just after you find yourself laughing maniacally at a gag, a performer breaks out in poignant song. As soon as you're dazzled by an illusion, the magician feigns idiocy and "accidentally" reveals his method. Characters who seem bumbling become acrobats. Acrobats who seemed talented become superhuman. Even audience members, called upon regularly for a range of humiliations, have their own surprises in store.

 

Food's not half bad, either. The serving of a five course meal - including a starter of local asparagus, a soup, a salad, a choice of entrée (go with lamb sirloin if you know what's good for you), and a lemon tart dessert - unfolds along with the drama on stage. And the apparent chef, played by local actor and comedian Michael Davis, often finds his way out of the kitchen to occasionally crack jokes and torment audience members. He's fantastic at this.

 

The show is stolen and stolen again, and hopefully without divulging too much, I'll reveal its thieves. The Randols - an R-rated roller-skating duo from Spain and Italy - perform a contained, high-speed, tornado-like dance on wheels. Ukranian silent illusionist, Eugeniy Voronin, tantalizes with self-possession and confetti, as he has for the previous decade. (He's was an original Zinzanni performer in Seattle, Washington, where the show began in 1998). Voronin's wife, Svetlana disappears completely into her role as a contortionist puppet, and the extraordinary talent of these husband-wife performers makes you wonder how they ever leave the house.

 

Peter Pitofsky's bewildering American clown rounds out the comedy, and the tangoing trapeze artists, Duo Artemiev from Russia, well, let's just say they're going to catch you off-guard. In the lead role as Madame Zinzanni, British performer Melanie Stace is both a vocal powerhouse and a gifted coquette in bejeweled gowns. Stace will be around until June 7, when R&B soul artists Honey Cone and Edna Wright will take over the role of Madam Zinzanni, and on July 1 they'll be replaced with Grammy award-winner Melba Moore.

 

While I can't vouch for those Madams, I can say that all in all, Sultry Summer Magic is the sort of performance that is better than anyone can or should attempt to describe.  

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