No business like chow business

Dinner theater in Seattle isn't what you might expect.

I KNOW, I KNOW. In the midst of WTO riots and activism, "dinner theater" sounds like the ultimate in decadent capitalist entertainment. What could be more damning of our overindulged society than having performers belt out Broadway tunes while you gorge tableside? While food is not my regular beat, I not only enjoy a good meal but have a significant interest in the way that good theater can be as important to one's meal as the wine you choose or whether or not the maitre d' snubs you. Traditional dinner theater is infamous for such deadly nexus as a pack of Annie's disgruntled moppets warbling directly at you while you stare at a dismal plate filled with vat-prepared spaghetti and some limp lettuce leaves. But my recent experience with some of Seattle's dinner theater offerings was both pleasantly tasty and, in general, original and fun.

A Christmas Carol

Riptide Theater through December 12

Forbidden Xmas '99

Cabaret De Paris through December 26

Teatro Zinzanni

One Reel through December 31

The one disappointment on the entertainment scale was at Riptide Theater, which is certainly no one's idea of a traditional "dinner theater," but gets high marks for originality. Alki's "theater in a deli" is a wonderfully quirky establishment, an old-style delicatessen most of the week that transforms, via a simple stage and a couple of curtains, into a theater with a surprisingly sophisticated season. (They surely must be one of the only dinner establishments in the country to offer plays by Harold Pinter and Jules Feiffer.) The food was also a pleasant combination of homey and unexpected, a buffet meal (at a very reasonable $22 with show) featuring a brisket of meat with boiled cabbage, carrots, and potatoes that were deliciously flavorful while still resolutely firm, and a salmon and pesto tortellini that at first seemed a little dry but mixed in delightfully with the brisket's juices. Homemade bread with a hint of rye, a full salad bar, and a wild berry tiramisu and New York-style cheesecake (desserts are an extra $3.50) were fine complements, along with servings of Batdorf and Bronson's coffee, the best you'll find in the Northwest.

The theater's current show, The Farndale Avenue Townswomen's Production of A Christmas Carol, is equally homestyle, but unfortunately this parody of Dickens' classic was lacking in flavor. Led by E. Bowling's Mrs. Reece, a drag performance that was a "Dame Edna Significantly Below Everage," the show attempts to recreate the sort of backstage chaos that goes on for real at your typical amateur theater production. The problem is that to be this bad, you actually have to be very good indeed, and the cheerful amateurism that characterizes this effort is a little too real to be truly funny, with too much conscious effort to be wacky from the performers. There are some clever sight gags and a few cute routines, but I left the evening primarily interested in taking the company's temperature again later when they're less intent on being silly.

The folks at the Cabaret De Paris, on the other hand, make silliness look easy in their production of Forbidden Xmas '99. Having missed earlier installments, all of the material was new to me, though such gems as "Steve Poole the Weatherman" and "The Dickens Carolers" are apparently old favorites. A couple of references to WTO madness were made during the evening, but mostly this is an endearingly soft jab at the seasonal habits of downtown Seattle and would make a fine primer for area newbies as to what we all talk about in a typical year, from our entirely unimpressive sports teams to a medley that neatly skewers a half-dozen other local Christmas cash cows.

The show comes with a "dinner and show" menu ($45), but thanks to my date's vegetarian proclivities, we went off-menu and enjoyed a nicely varied cheese and fruit platter, a pleasant Caesar salad and a tasty (if overly cheesy) French onion soup, and a pair of crepes, hers a flavorful ratatouille and mine a chicken and mushroom combination with a curiously underwhelming Dijon sauce. Still, presentation counts for a lot with dinner theater, and the staff at the Crepe De Paris were apparently trained by Ninjas, so miraculously unnoticeable were they during the show.

Without a doubt, the crown jewel of Seattle's dinner theater for the past year has been Teatro Zinzanni. Running continuously since October of last year, this combination cabaret/dinner theater/clown show, which is held in an antique "speigltent" located on the border of Seattle Center on Mercer Street, has sold out practically every performance, despite its hefty ticket price ($88-$150) and frequent cast changes. By the time the show closes on December 31, over 70,000 tickets will have been sold.

To my uncultivated but supremely appreciative palette, the menu designed by executive chef Tom Douglas is superb, all the way from the spinach, butternut squash, and parsnip soup to the boeuf bourguignon and onward and upward into a decadent but strangely right Chocolate Glazed Espresso G鮯ise. I have the utmost admiration for the manner in which the entire production, particularly the backstage romances of the clown/servers and the scarcely controlled antics of Kevin Kent as the Chef (who receives a new costume and new personality for each course), makes one feel catered to in the highest manner possible: that one's unspoken wishes and desires are being met. Who'd have guessed that the ideal complement for wild mushrooms and caramelized carrots might be the sexy and graceful acrobatics of Canadian duo Sindhu Love, moving up and down a blood-red cloth dangling from the ceiling with such grace and ease that watching them one has to continually readjust one's perspective by ninety degrees? Or that the ideal manner to enjoy one's dessert is with a bit of ballet, provided by dancer Leyla Akylbekova, in a moment of unexpected and sublime beauty? In such moments, "dinner theater" reveals itself to be an astonishingly inadequate way to describe moments of near-perfect sensual delight.

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