Chicago BeAt…Cirque du Soleil’s world premiere production ‘Banana Shpeel’
For those who think Cirque du Soleil can do no wrong (myself included), we now have their latest revue “Banana Shpeel,” a vastly disappointing, often grating, surprisingly padded ode to vaudeville. This, sadly, is a whole lot of wrong.
From the jaw-dropping, ballet-like martial arts in “KA,” to the glorious magical power of “Quidam,” Cirque shows are unparalleled spectacles, creating dynamic theatrical feats of acrobatics and drama accented by magnificent sets, gorgeous costumes, luscious lighting and rousing original music. If you haven’t seen a Cirque show, by all means, go. Just don’t go see “Banana Shpeel.”
Cirque steps out of its comfort zone in “Banana,” presenting for the first time a variety show intended for the legitimate theater. (Following its world premiere run at the Chicago Theatre, “Banana” heads to New York’s Beacon Theatre in February.) It’s clear now that “Banana” hasn’t recovered from all its rehearsal troubles. Stars Annaleigh Ashford and Michael Longoria, from Broadway’s “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys,” respectively, were fired from the show in October, their roles apparently written out. Perhaps the audience would have identified with the two Broadway titans. Maybe the characters would have provided “Banana” some consistency, star wattage and emotional heft. Or perhaps the actors are better off getting axed from the production. We’ll never know for sure.
In “Banana,” the acrobatics and dramatic set pieces Cirque is known for are minimized, with clownish comedy and Broadway dance routines filling out much of the program. There’s nothing wrong with Cirque trying to stretch itself a bit, but if you’re going to throw out your baby with the bath water, you better have something sensational to compensate, particularly if you’re selling tickets for up to $100 each. The dance numbers in “Banana,” dazzling though they may be, and the chaotic comedy bits, pained and never-ending that they are, don’t cut it.
It’s primarily the comedy that rots this “Banana.” Writer-director David Shiner has a long history of performing as a clown, and it’s apparent that his passion for clowning clouds his judgment. “Banana” has not one, not two, but five primary clowns (Daniel Passer, Wayne Wilson, Claudio Carneiro, Gordon White and Patrick de Valette), with two more actors mucking it up for laughs in their scenes. So little of it is actually funny. There are plates smashed on heads, nearly nude frolicking, goofy squeaky noises, an old man farting, a guy who moves his butt cheeks to the rhythm of music, and several running gags that won’t stop running (or should I say limping). Maybe this would work, in doses, but for who remains to be seen. The comedy is so silly it seems aimed at children – but then there are ugly, awkward jokes about alcoholism and whores and erectile dysfunction, so then again, maybe it’s not. At either rate, Shiner just drowns his show in this primarily witless shtick. Following an incredibly long, cartoonish introduction, set as auditions for cigar chomping mega producer caricature Marty Schmelky (Jerry Kernion), the clowns keep on cutting it up during Schmelky’s opening spectacle, and again in a beyond tedious restaurant skit that has nothing to do with Schmelky’s show. By this point, the clowns have well overstayed their welcome, and we’re only at the show’s halfway point. They come back for more goofy antics in act two, mugging it up obnoxiously in a “magic” scene with no magic except for a repetitious disappearing/reappearing act played for weak laughs. Then the clowns bring the show to its anticlimactic finale.
Shiner fares better with the dance numbers, the second most prevalent component to “Banana.” The numbers qualify as spectacle, set to swell swinging jazz heavy on the sax and horns. Jared Grimes’ choreography is winning, particularly in a group tap routine (fronted by talented hoofers Joseph and Josette Wiggan), and they’re a great excuse to show off Dominique Lemieux’s exotic costumes. But the numbers get repetitive by the third dance, and the finale work, second banana to the clowning, falls flat.
The two acrobatic scenes and two juggling scenes, expectedly, are aces, easily the best bits of the show. If the “Banana” producers are smart, they’ll bring in at least two more acts like them to replace a lot of the comedy. Jeff Retzlanff and Kelsey Wiens perform a slinkier, more playful version of Cirque’s famous man/woman balancing act. Vanessa Alvarez spins four peppermint-colored cloths, one with each appendage, in an original, invigorating act of juggling (although the Japanese backdrop coupled with Jean-François Côté and Scott Price’s Spanish-influenced score was distracting). But the crown jewel is Dima Shine’s poetic, awe-inspiring hand balancing act, set against Patricia Ruel’s twilight backdrop patterned with white lights. Filled with beauty, imagination and grace, Shine, in his few minutes on stage, embodies the type of spectacular worthy of the Cirque du Soleil name. Overall, what “ Banana Shpeel” embodies is spectacular disappointment.
Cirque du Soleil’s “Banana Shpeel” runs Wednesday through Sundays until Jan. 3 at The Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St. No shows Dec. 24-25, Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. Special Monday and Tuesday shows Dec. 22 and Dec. 28-29. $23-98. Click here for the schedule and to buy tickets.