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  WINDY CITY TIMES

PERFORMANCE Gay performer Michael Cunio part of 'Teatro ZinZanni'
by Jerry Nunn
2021-07-17

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Teatro ZinZanni Chicago carved out its own niche on the 14th floor of Cambria Hotel back in 2019, with the premiere of Love, Chaos, & Dinner. Blending dinner with a show under the big top in a Belgium mirror tent called Spiegeltent ZaZou, proved quite lucrative for Frank Ferrante's Caesar and the gang in the Chicago Theater District.

After being shuttered for a brief time, Teatro ZinZanni has returned better than ever. Debbie Sharpe, from The Goddess franchise, once again, provides the four-course cuisine and Caesar is back with more than just a salad. Brand new talent has joined the cast, such as singer/actor Michael Cunio, among several others.

Cunio gained national attention after performing Etta James' "At Last" on a PBS concert special called Under the Streetlamp Live! He has released three albums and toured worldwide.

Some stage roles include Corny Collins in Hairspray and Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys. He won an Ovation Award for Reefer Madness.

Windy City Times: Where are you from?

Michael Cunio: I was born and raised in Seattle. I grew up there. I ended up in LA and have now been in New York for a few years.

WCT: What is your last name from?

MC: It is Italian. I go by Cunio and people probably think I am trying to be like Cher or Madonna, but that is not the case. I was raised Catholic in a private school. There were always at least five Michaels in the classrooms, so since the first grade I have been Cunio, because of my teachers. It just stuck. It is unique for sure, but not a diva thing.

My brothers are all named after saints and Italian. We are all referred to as Cunio, so when we communicate, it's "C1" and "C2." I'm the youngest, so it is "C4." My nephew is "C5." It is going to keep going…

WCT: How do you identify?

MC: He, him, his—and very gay.

WCT: When did you come out?

MC: When I was 18. I came out to my mom first, then to the rest of my family later. My mom was surprised, but came around eventually. Right after I told her, I went to a ballet class. Not that it is a barometer of sexuality, but I had been performing since I was very young.

My brothers are macho Italians, but could not be more loving and accepting. We grew up poor and we disagree on world views, but we have a lot of love for each other. All four of my mom's sons are absolutely living their dreams. We have gone out fearlessly and chased the things we are passionate about.

WCT: Will your mom come see the show?

MC: It would be great if she can travel here, so we shall see. This is my second time in Teatro ZinZanni, after doing the show in Seattle. It was great to be close to my family where they could see it there. I spend so much of my career traveling and don't get much time off.

WCT: Have you been to Chicago much before this?

MC: Chicago is my home away from home. It has been great for my career and I have spent as much time here as in New York.

My relationship with Chicago began in 2009 when I did the last year of Jersey Boys. That is where I met my husband. That job turned into my band where I performed on PBS called Under the Streetlamp. We toured all over the world, but Chicago is where we filmed the concert specials.

In 2018, one of the greatest jobs I've had in my life was performing in Jesus Christ Superstar at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

WCT: I saw you in that! How do you warm-up vocally for a show like Teatro ZanZinni?

MC: That is my job. The easy part is being onstage for three hours. I am up at 9 a.m. and at the gym by 11 a.m. I do warmups all day long. I put my voice through some abuse in the show, but there is no phoning it in. I have not missed a performance in over 10 years. That is how much I love what I do.

WCT: How much did you contribute to the costuming of Teatro ZanZinni?

MC: I have a love affair with our costume designer. We call her "Beaver" and her name is Debrah Bauer. She has boundless creativity.

The only reason I stay fit is for the costumes. I wear a corset and heels. I hate heels, but it is a skill I have learned. I told her to go as far as she wanted to with the costumes.

The last show was very different in terms of costuming, where I wore top hats and gray suits. Here, I am playing a celestial creature. We went very ethereal. She showed me the designs during the pandemic and I knew I had to lose some weight.

I didn't know if we could get away with a dress and high slit. Fortunately, the creatives here appreciated it and supported it. I got my ass to the gym and she got her ass to the fabric store!

WCT: There are some very beautiful, androgynous pieces in Teatro ZinZanni. Have you done drag before?

MC: No. I am not a drag queen, but having costumes like this really teaches you a lot about yourself. The costumes inspire about 90 percent of what I do in the tent. I felt bad when I showed my costumes to the rest of the cast, because I win, my costumes are the best!

It is fun and a pain in the ass. The first time I wore the dress in front of an audience, I tripped on it. Making it look cool is part of the creative process.

ZinZinni has a truly creative environment and there is nothing else like it.

WCT: Describe Teatro ZanZanni for those that haven't seen it.

MC: That is very hard to do. It is kind of like a musical and dinner theater. It is like Cirque du Soleil, but also not like any of those things. It is hard to talk about without diminishing the impact that it has.

WCT: It feels very welcoming to all communities, including the LGBTQIA+ community.

MC: It is. That is one of the coolest things about this. I look around the room and there are four year old kids and 90 year old grandparents watching me. It is nice to see teenagers paying attention and not watching their phones.

It is inclusive to everyone and a very apolitical environment. Everyone respects pronouns and identities.

I have walked away from jobs because they didn't pull their weight as far as being inclusive. I am happy this show puts emphasis on the right things in 2021.

WCT: I think people need a show like Teatro ZanZanni to have an escape these days.

MC: I was vaccinated as soon as I could be, and was nervous about coming back to work. I realized that all of the things we had been starved for during the pandemic—such as seeing a concert, dancing, going to dinner and attending a drag show—are all under this tent. It is the ultimate one-stop shop!

Follow Cunio on social media at Cunio4. Swing over to BroadwayInChicago.com for tickets to Teatro ZinZanni, 32 W. Randolph St.


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