Rick Bayless in Cascabel: One Hot Tamale

If you had told me 22 years ago, back when I was managing Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, that in 2012 I would be writing a theatre review of Chef Rick Bayless starring in a Tony-winning theater production, I would have laughed.

Sure, Rick is a fantastic chef. But can he act? Can he dance? Can he hold his own on a stage full of professional actors? The answer, unequivocally, is yes. And delightfully so.

I admit it. I bought tickets to see “Rick Bayless in Cascabel” pretty much the moment they went on sale. I knew it was going to be something special, but I wasn’t sure which way it was going to go: memorably laughable, or just flat-out memorable for all the right reasons we go to see live theater (and eat at amazing restaurants)?

Worth the Price of Admission

After spending $200 apiece for tickets, my husband and I were thrilled to find that it was an amazing, often jaw-dropping theatrical experience. The story is a little flimsy, and somewhat reminiscent of “Like Water for Chocolate.” But so much heart and soul goes in to the production – it is sensual in every meaning of the word, both in that it engages all of your senses, plus it’s, well, arousing – that you forgive that small foible and wholly involve yourself.

They had me at the perfect margarita and spoon of liquid queso fundido with chorizo in the lobby. The setting enchants immediately as you are led to one of the long communal tables that fan outward from the stage. Wine and beer are self-serve at the table, and you can settle up with the waiter at the end. Bottled water is included.

Tony Hernandez, the wizard of the circus wire, is co-creator and co-director of Cascabel, and brings his spell-binding talents to the on-stage mix, as does Lookingglass Ensemble member Thomas J. Cox as the suitor and the hilarious Jesse Perez as the Maitre d’.

Cirque du Lookingglass

Beautiful performances are also given by circus arts performers Lindsey Noel Whiting, contortionist Alexandra Pivaral (you will never look at a bathtub in the same way, I guarantee) and the sculpted body of Nicolas Besnard.  Good lord, have mercy. The man is a work of art.

Bayless cooks his way through much of the show – he is playing a mysterious and talented chef – but does well interacting with the others on stage, neither under or over-playing his role. He has a lovely dance duet – you heard me! – with Chiara Mangiameli as the Senora, a widowed flamenco dancer. I’m thinking of starting a campaign to get Rick on Dancing with the Stars. Why not?

Holy Mole!

Kudos to the incredible offstage kitchen crew, who turn out 4-star quality food for the 120 or so people in the audience. You will not leave hungry. The sublime Tuna Ceviche appetizer, served in a banana leaf atop layers of passion fruit gelee and tomatillo/avocado puree will enchant; the entrée of perfectly cooked, medium rare Beef Tenderloin with rich, dark Fiesta Mole and a black bean tamal will captivate.

The moist Oaxacan Chocolate Cake with Blood Orange Espuma and “shards of festivity” will put you over the top. And yes, double entendres are intentional. This is not a show for kids.

The important thing to know is that there are tickets still available, and that the show runs through April 29 at the Lookingglass Theatre in the Water Tower Water Works, 812 N. Michigan Ave. in Chicago. For more info, call 312-337-0665 or visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org.