A Frenchman with wild eyes and even wilder hair is gripping my hand tightly, bent into a crouch next to me, and buzzing like he could spring at any moment. “Are you in love?” he asks, his gaze focused on the two figures on the stage in front of us. “In the beginning, this is what love looks like.”
I’m sitting at a raised communal table on the side of an oval stage in the middle of the storied Paramount Hotel’s basement just a few blocks from Times Square. In front of me, ”Queen of the Night” is unfolding. It’s the latest work of Randy Weiner, the proprietor of the famed, Macbeth-tinted “Sleep No More,” a show responsible for bringing a fantastical, interactive style of theater to popularity over the past three years in New York City.
The night is billed as “a dark debutante ball” for the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, with a storyline based loosely on Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute” and told through a finely orchestrated bedlam of dancing and dining. Guests are immersed in two-acts of over-the-top dinner theater and plied with drinks, food, and attention from the discerningly tactile dancers.
What fascinates the Frenchman next to me is Pamina, a young brunette with a thick crown of braids, in the throes of a desperate dance with her sandy-haired, hipster-bearded, love interest. He soon loosens his grip on my hand and bolts toward the stage. He’ll later, and with audience encouragement, tie a noose and threaten to hang himself.
With this latest venture, Weiner has pulled from his past projects, blending interactive theatrics and burlesque-show elements with a heavy dose of circus pageantry and an extravagant meal. “Queen of the Night” opened for a limited, six-week run on New Year’s Eve, but, unsurprisingly, it was extended indefinitely barely a week later. Sunday marked the show’s official opening.
The setting for this sinfully lavish dinner theater madness is the long-shuttered Diamond Horseshoe in the Paramount Hotel, an infamous hangout during its heyday in the 1940s that Weiner and his creative partners have awoken from a 63-year slumber, pouring $20 million into renovations to the hotel and underground club.
A series of staircases winds under the lobby and opens onto a lavish banquet room, at once classical, futuristic, and whimsical. A bar stretches across the back wall, bubbling with hundreds of test tubes snaking into boiling oversized beakers like it’s the lab of a mad scientist. Guests snatch up the eccentric-looking drinks that line the bar as they wander around before the performance. A stage fills the middle of the room underneath a giant, many-tentacled sun hanging from the ceiling and is surrounded by two levels of tables. The walls are lined with clouded glass and throw a touch of art deco into the design mix.
A troop of the Queen’s butlers, male and female, are clad in exaggerated shorts and white halter tuxedo shirts that are almost Chippendales-esque, created by fashion designer Thom Browne. They serve as dancers, waiters and, if you’re lucky, personal guides. The casting call description stipulated that applicants for the role “must be extremely comfortable and excited to interact directly with audience members,” and they certainly don’t hold back.
In the spirit of “Sleep No More,” “Queen of the Night” draws the audience into the show as participants. But unlike the former, where performers brush by visitors as if they don’t exist, at “Queen of the Night,” actors make and latch onto eye contact with a disconcertingly sly smile. As they perform nearby, they’ll stroke diners’ arms and play with their hair.
Also unlike “Sleep No More,” where attendees are outfitted with a pointed white mask and the illusion of an alter ego, “Queen of the Night” doesn’t provide anonymity. Before the performance, as guests entered into the Diamond Horseshoe from the frigid January cold and stood gaping at fit dancers in the middle of upside-down acts of contortion, there was a moment of identification.
“I recognize your voice,” I hear a woman say to someone next to her.
“You don’t recognize my face?” is the reply.
I glimpse around at an all-black-clad Bethenny Frankel laughing as the woman stares intently at her.
Then, a long and limber girl with wide eyes and an uncanny resemblance to Rihanna grabs my hand and startles me by speaking. “What’s your name?” she asks, guiding me behind the stage curtains where an all white bouquet of roses hangs as a chandelier in an all-white room. Through an open door, a nearly naked, red-shrouded woman dips her feet into a full bathtub, and guests wander through as they freely explore the space’s nooks and crannies.
When the show begins we take our seats. The Frenchman whispers in my ear, a small Chinese acrobat performs mind-bending contortions, dancers fling themselves through hoops and flip every which way on a giant hamster wheel. All the while, music ranging from heavy rock to a trance-inducing rave pulses, and it’s impossible to gauge time or escape the parallel reality of the performance happening on the stage in front of us, and occasionally spilling onto the floor around us.
A pause, and dinner is served. “We encourage you to beg, barter, and steal,” one butler—they’re playing double duty as waiters—tells us as an entire suckling piglet is placed in the center of the table. Around us, birdcages full of lobsters and trays stacked with short ribs are being set down, and guests begin piling a feast of medieval proportions onto their metal plates. When the clinking slows, the show is back, with performers wheeling out massive bins that barbaric diners hurtle literally everything, other than glassware, into.
Meanwhile, the music is dialed back up, and the dancers return to their story. There’s deception and infidelity, knife-throwers and a near-suicide, until the finale featuring the willowy and utterly hypnotizing Queen, who—stripped down from a white cape and pharaoh-like headdress into just a nude slip—performs an anguishing solo dance, glitter flying with each flip of her blond hair.
Maintaining tight eye contact, the butlers pluck out audience members for a gripping, melancholic dance. Slowly, tables are emptied and the floor around the stage is filled. Waiters hoisting massive, gooey hazelnut dacquoise cakes spoon-feed the dancing guests encircling the stage.
After the show, the audience mingles and disperses. What remains are the show’s behind-the-scenes staff: costume designers and carpenters talking about the months of manpower that went into transforming the abandoned subterranean space into what New York magazine has already dubbed the city’s “hottest nightlife event.” Later, wearing their street clothes, the dancers emerge from backstage.
Leaning against the bar, the Chinese acrobat looks weary, though he says none of the tricks are difficult for him anymore. He’s been training since he was five.
The wide-eyed girl who led me backstage is now wearing a hoodie. Getting into “Queen of the Night” was a dream she said, so much more glamorous than the other theaters in New York. But, after all that audience contact, she couldn’t wait to get on the subway and close her eyes for a little while.