By BRUCE DENNILL
Madame Zingara’s The Celebration / Directed by Richard Griffin / Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg
The Madame Zingara concept is now 15 years old – it’s refreshed with new acts, angles and ideas on a regular basis – and there is no sign of it’s popularity waning, with this current run having sold very well already.
There are a number of attractive aspects to the concept, as it combines fine dining, dinner theatre, circus elements and the novelty of being inside a huge mirror tent that, all combined, recalls everything from Victorian freak shows to Paris’ Moulin Rouge.
First contact on arrival is with a dwarf sporting an Afro laced with Christmas lights, while the MC for the evening is a near seven-foot cross-dresser with a scathing comment for every occasion, so you know you’re not in Kansas anymore as soon as you arrive. That buzz could be enhanced were the parking arrangements and signage for the show a little more sensible, but provided you’ve left enough time to enjoy a drink in the foyer (and possibly get your face painted or buy an accessory to enhance your outfit), the hassle of having to meander through a casino to get to the Queen of Flanders (as the tent is called) is soon forgotten.
Madame Zingara’s The Celebration is an immersive experience, and the staff play a huge role in patrons’ enjoyment. They are introduced at the beginning of the evening, and show guests to their tables, and they continue to operate in those specific areas for the remainder of the night, changing costumes between courses. It is their infectious enthusiasm, though, that is the real difference between eating in this environment and having a meal at another themed venue. They know all the words to all the songs; they dance between duties and they make way for one another with a smile. They’re not on stage, but their performance is as important to the effectiveness of the production as anything contributed by those named on the poster.
The circus components are obvious highlights, as the singing and acting bits are part of any more conventional cabaret set-up.The best of the lot is up right near the beginning: Spanish Cirque du Soleil aerial pole artist Saulo Sarmiento. His act involves fluid movement, interacting with a pole suspended from the ceiling and performing relatively simple (in physics terms, anyway) intractions with the apparatus. Once he gets warmed up though, he displays Olympic gymnast levels of strength, confirming that his audience-pleasing muscle definition is not just there for show.
The quartet of female singers, outfitted in retro dresses and boots a la the girl groups of the Fifties and Sixties. A pleasant surprise for fans of her musical theatre work is the presence of Bianca Le Grange as one of the vocalists – she’s a classy, brassy presence. The quartet focus on mostly international golden oldies, so it is heartening when they switch to material by Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela and the audience energy levels leap.
The food is good without being great, but the challenges of serving 650 people (in a sold-out house) simultaneously – or as close to as possible – must be taken into account on that score.
Madame Zingara brings to life a lost entertainment era. It’s not one that was at all politically correct in its original context – then there were freaks, prostitutes and others in the place of today’s actors and singers – and the residual edginess (it is an adult show, reflected in the age restriction communicated in the marketing materials) gives everything a slightly risqué sheen.
Do this often and the novelty value will wear off, but as an occasional splurge, it’s a great night out.