In the service of entertainment, the Goodman Theatre has hosted fog machines and movie stars, Tony winners and disco balls. But this summer, the venerable institution will present two notable new attractions: Rick Bayless and an aroma diffuser.
The first attraction requires little introduction — Bayless is a highly regarded chef, the owner of restaurants ranging from Topolobampo to more humble eateries at O'Hare International Airport and a man who promotes the complexities of Mexican cuisine with evangelical fervor. The second item is generally found in spas, where it might be used for aromatic oils or to propagate perfume. Or it aids in the gentle deceit of making a store smell like freshly baking cinnamon rolls long after the goodies have cooled.
But Bayless and the aroma diffuser — actually several of them — are as one in the new, improved version of "Cascabel," his theatrical, circus-infused bit of upmarket dinner theater produced in collaboration with the Lookingglass Theatre Company and Silverguy Entertainment. "Cascabel," which stars Bayless playing the character of a vagabond chef who cooks to win the heart of his Mexican lady, was a huge hit for Lookingglass the last time around, commanding steep ticket prices from those to came to eat Bayless' food and watch the celebrity chef both cook and act.
This time around, you'll get to smell those delicious Bayless vittles all the better. "Everyone says aroma is the most evocative thing," Bayless said during a break from rehearsals last week. "When you smell something, it often brings up a very powerful memory. There is no reason you can't put cooking smells inside an aroma diffuser. We're going to do a series of aromas that just flood the place."
Bayless and his main collaborators, Tony Hernandez and Heidi Stillman, say they have been itching to bring back the show after its initial run in 2012. Aside from those diffusers, most of the tweaks are relatively minor, but nonetheless, they say, worthy.
"It's really a balancing act between keeping things fresh and new and fixing things and yet not ruining what you had that was so good," Stillman said. "We all want to plant the thematic seeds of the piece a little better. But we certainly don't want to see the souffle fall."
That seems hardly likely. The Goodman is the current venue and slightly larger (the last "Cascabel" was staged at Lookingglass' own theater on Michigan Avenue) but the Goodman has more backstage space, which makes the business of serving food up to those famous Bayless standards a little less arduous. Instead of passing out appetizers in the lobby, as with the first staging, audiences now will head directly to their tables inside the Goodman's Owen Theatre and munch at their seats there (the appetizers have been changed from last time, although both the entree and the desert remain the same).
"Cascabel" was conceived as a light story with plenty of time and room for circus acts, and Hernandez says that those acts have changed too. For one thing, Hernandez, who is now based in New York where he works on the Broadway production of "Pippin," will only perform in the show at the beginning of the run (his replacement as the character of the Houseboy has yet to be named). But he's still a co-director with a formidable Rolodex, and he's booked several new acts, including performers who impressed greatly in the French-Canadian 7 Fingers show "Traces," which played the Broadway Playhouse in 2010.
Hernandez says that when he first conceived the show, he was reacting to Bayless' cooking and what it did to him. "The ceviche made me feel skinny and light," Hernandez said. "It was a feeling. The food really initiated the angle of where the circus stuff wanted to go."
One open question on everyone's mind is whether "Cascabel" is, as they say in the trade, scale-able. Since Bayless is, in the words of his collaborators, "the world's busiest man," that likely would mean eventually figuring out a way to use Bayless' food with a different chef.
Bayless, for sure, clearly likes being at the center of the show, as he will be throughout the entire Goodman run. It was his idea — the head of a culinary empire or not — to bring back "Cascabel," which, on the ledger of what makes Bayless money, is not a wildly significant entry. Clearly, it's all about the creative challenge for the man. "I am a person who loves to cycle back on things," Bayless said. "Menu items — whatever it might be. I like to see if we can go a bit deeper, do it a bit better. When I did this the first time, I started getting ideas about other things we might do about halfway through the run. I think we all better understand the potential of this show now."
After all, everyone says, the first production of "Cascabel" was dominated by the daunting question of whether Lookingglass (with no real kitchen) could actually pull off a circus-crusted show with the kind of food that would satisfy Bayless' notoriously demanding global devotees. This time, they have that success behind them, and they can go from there.
"We're going to talk a bit more about food this time," Bayless said. "The way chefs talk about food. You know my philosophy in my restaurant is that you want people to come in and have a great time, and, if they have that great time, then they become open to talking to you about all kinds of things, like where the food comes from. The idea, then and now, is not just to set the food before people, but make them think about their relationship to it."
July 30 to Aug. 24 in the Goodman's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; $240-$375 at 312-337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org
"Press Pass: Theater Loop Goes to Stratford Festival"
When: July 30 to Aug. 31
Where: The Goodman's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: $215-$375 at 312-337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun