In shows worlds apart, two cunning characters will try to turn your back on love.
The Can Can Culinary Cabaret boasts the ultimately feel-good House of Hearts (through March 26), while Seattle Opera presented a gorgeous (and now-closed) concert-style telling of the classic tale of temptation and betrayal in Samson and Delilah.
Fetch me my retribution gown!
At the Can Can Culinary Cabaret, known for its feel-good shows, a chiseled and charming fan favorite is turned into the clear-cut villain and an enemy of true love.
Richard Peacock takes center stage as the royally narcissistic Queen of Hearts in House of Hearts, the loosely Valentine’s Day-inspired episode of the Can Can’s seasonally themed original cabarets.
At the door and greeting attendees through the aisles, Peacock is all warmth and smiles, a big human hug of a welcome. On stage, decked out as the Queen, he stomps and prowls, hoarding attention while a picture of self-doubt, hand glued to a mirror to reflect back a constant assurance of beauty. So deeply committed to snuffing out any affection directed at anyone but her, the Queen even turns on her own daughter (Shadou Mintrone) for the capital crime of falling in love with the hapless court jester (Jonathan Betchtel).
As is the Can Can’s usual formula, the dance- and song-filled cabaret draws inspiration from a collage of literary sources, this time with hints of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland tales, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and good ol’ classic themes of love, jealousy, and vengeance.
Collaborative clapping along to bass-heavy beats is a signature of the Can Can experience, a joyous group reprieve from the so-called Freeze. If anything, Queen of Hearts might tilt too far that way, going lighter on clever musical arrangements (by Pink and Pezzner) in favor of a bit more rah-rah show.
But all the usual Can Can signatures are present, which adds up to a lively night. Peacock as the show centerpiece is a ton of fun. Mintrone — who also designs the fabulous costumes — shows off her athleticism with fierce splits and aerial acrobatics, alongside Sasha Voyt, who doubles as the royal feline. As host as well as the jester, Betchtel brings his usual welcome of warmth and sass.
Most of the knockout hits in this show come from Jasmine Jean Sim, who heats things up with a “Poison” rendition mid-show, and closes out with a heart-stirring “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” looking like cabaret royalty in an epic, flowing gown.
Now a Can Can staple, the sultry Sim is a star, fusing warmth, athleticism, and a killer voice; but might be more recognizable to theatre fans as the title character’s love interest in Village Theatre’s world-premiere musical The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes, as a member of ACT’s original Core Company cohort, or on other area stages after graduating locally from Cornish; or known to Nightmare Before Christmas fans as a somehow-sexy version of the villain Oogie Boogie in the Can Can’s annual This Is Halloween at the Triple Door. In an old Encore interview, Sim cites passion as key in any production and, fittingly, passion sizzles off of Sim anytime she takes the cabaret’s stage. And that’s emblematic of the high-caliber performances the Can Can puts on.
While the company’s devotion to quality is serious, the shows aren’t. Full of music, dancing, and double entendres, chased with food and drinks, the Can Can’s might be the funnest stage in town.
* * *
A world apart, one man crumples under his own love story gone wrong in Seattle Opera’s dazzling presentation of Samson and Delilah, a nineteenth-century opera by Camille Saint-Saëns (music) and Ferdinand Lemaire (libretto) based on the famous, not-so-sweet biblical tale.
Presented in concert form, this opera brings the symphony on stage, along with a full chorus at the rear, and the principal singers up front. The staging is simplified with a pared-back set. But bringing everything on view feels grand, not unlike the ballet Carmina Burana, in which the many layers lend an ethereal feel to the stage. In contrast to Carmina Burana’s dark tones, here the vibrant colors of Connie Yun’s lighting design wow while setting the moods: a deep morose blue, a bright spring of new beginning, a fiery pink passion.
The story, from the biblical book of Judges, is familiar to many of us. Delilah tries, fails, and tries again to get Samson to reveal the source of his supernatural strength. When her manipulation succeeds at last, she betrays his trust, spills his secret to the Israelites’ enemies, and brings his soon-to-be captors to the door.
Whatever tellings I received growing up all focused on the same elements: his lust, stupidity, and suffering; her opportunism, duplicity, and cruel betrayal. But this one brings a different take, giving a more robust and human story than any version I’ve heard before. Here, her allegiances (to the Philistines) are as true as his (to the Israelites); two sides in a protracted war, not the shallow seductress as she and other women of the Old Testament are often portrayed and dismissed. And here, his greatest failing is not to himself but to the masses who counted on him as their protector, the designated sword and shield that kept them a free people. When he calls out for strength, he knows his own fate; but he can’t abide knowing his own lust had sealed his people’s, too. His final gasp of power is not to avenge, but to make amends.
As anyone might guess, the leads — tenor Yonghoon Lee as Samson and Tacoma-raised mezzo soprano J’Nai Bridges as Delilah, both making their Seattle Opera debuts (along with Seattle Opera veteran Greer Grimsley as the High Priest of Dagon) — are fantastic singers. But, less commonly seen, they’re also incredible actors. Where opera performers usually leave much of the emoting to vocals, Lee’s longing and Bridges’ derision and cunning are written all over their faces. Meanwhile, the stage chemistry between them, on which the story hinges, is undeniable; the two make a gorgeous stage pair, and it makes her betrayal all the more sweet (for her), shattering (for him), and inevitable (for the rest of us).
This showing was a limited run with only two performances, which is a bummer. Typical opera fan or not, it’d be hard not to be moved by the beauty of this one. With a pared-down staging, this presentation heightens the drama, shows off the (usually unseen) musicians, and keeps the focus on the story and the sheer talent of its performers. For future short-runs that come along, be advised: Don’t snooze on Seattle Opera concerts. They’re quite the show.
* * *
With little natural overlap, House of Hearts and Samson and Delilah conspire to tell a dramatic story of love beyond self-fulfillment and the pitfalls of failing to look further than self.
House of Hearts runs through 3/26 at the Can Can Culinary Cabaret near Pike Place Market (new location: 95 Pine St.). Admission 21+. Performs with two intermissions, and food and drink service before and during the show (seating 30-60 minutes before show time). Restrooms are multi-stall and gender-neutral. Tickets start at $83+ (with fees, depending on date), here.
Samson and Delilah in Concert performed at Seattle Opera on 1/20 and 1/22. Show info here.
For shows by date, see the Performance Calendar.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.