REVIEW: Cirque du Soleil’s “Banana Shpeel”

Yes! We have no bananas

 Dance 9

Cirque du Soleil presents:

Banana Shpeel

written and directed by David Shiner
at the
Chicago Theatre
Through Jan. 3 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Comedy 3 When I mentioned to another critic that I planned to rank Banana Shpeel by scoring each of the acts separately and averaging the results, she asked, "Can you use negative stars?"

Yes, parts of Cirque du Soleil‘s new stage show are that bad.

Although a few elements of this remarkably uneven spectacle are terrific, it all adds up to a disappointing and chaotic whole. If you’re too impatient to sift through the details, the short version is that Cirque du Soleil’s effort to re-imagine the vaudeville variety show succeeds in the circus acts for which the company has become famous and fails in nearly all of its efforts to be vaudevillian and, notably, the comedy.

The humor of vaudeville was broad and slapstick – think the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges – often bawdy and coarse. While some of that era’s gags remain timeless, others have become unfunny through overexposure or because modern audiences have finer sensibilities than those of the minstrel era.

Banana Shpeel groans under the weight of hoary old bits that went dull before Groucho Marx was born and ragging jokes that most of us no longer laugh at. Cirque steers away from vaudeville’s most commonplace slurs and stereotypes, but still, within the first 15 minutes, Banana Shpeel pokes fun at old people and deaf people, uses a filthy Yiddish word in reference to an apparently Jewish character and tops it off with a pair of African-American tap dancers.

 

Acrobat 2 Acrobat 6 Acrobat 4

The lineup:

Auditions. The show begins with an utterly lame, overlong act that introduces cigar-chomping impresario Marty Schmelky of "Schmelky’s Schmelktacular" (Jerry Kernion); his two would-be comic sidekicks, Daniel (Daniel Passer) and Wayne (Wayne Wilson); and three other clownish characters who are supposedly auditioning: Claudio Carneiro, a lame Brazilian impersonator of "ordinary people with knee problems"; Patrick de Valette, an exhibitionist modern dancer; and Gordon White, "The Oldest Mime in the World." Despite discouragement by Schmelky and company, this trio shows up again and again in different guises, the running gag of the show. This bunch of second bananas apparently inspired the name. No actual bananas were harmed in the making of the show. zero stars

Welcome to Schmelky Spectacular. Next, we get a not especially spectacular opening dance number, featuring lots of flappers and feathers and highlighting siblings Joseph and Josette Wiggan, two talented tappers who deserve better than to be exhibited like a revival of the vaudevillian "two-colored" rule. ★★

Juggler. In this more traditional Cirque act, Tuan Le adeptly juggles hats – getting up to six – using his hands, feet and head. ★★★

Eccentric dance. An ensemble dance number more remarkable for its fluorescent costumes and effective use of blacklight than for its choreography. ★★½

Duo hand to hand. Strongman Jeff Retzlanff and lithe Kelsey Wiens perform a pas de deux of acrobatic maneuvers that climax with her standing on his head on one foot. ★★★½

Clown restaurant. A long, painful episode involving all five clowns, an apparently well-coached audience member and some trite routines so antique they’ve fossilized.

Act II Clowns. More of the same. zero stars

Foot juggler. A hypnotic act in which dexterous, scantily clad Vanessa Alvarez spins mats with her feet while, among other things, standing on her head. In the background, three other young ladies pose with giant fans. ★★★

Magic dance. There’s nothing especially magical about this dance number. ★★

Magic. A stylized, slapstick magic act, set to music, disjointed and dumb.

Hand balancing. An awesome performance by Russian strongman and contortionist Dima Shine, a beautiful young man doing beautiful, sinuous, graceful, almost impossible things with his body on a lighted pole. ★★★★

Tap dance. If you thrill to the tap spectacles in old movies, this one will wow you. It starts off a bit slowly, but perks up fast. The Wiggans do some fine work here, as do the whole ensemble. This may be the one act that really justifies the "new twist on vaudeville" label, and would have made a much better opening act than those excruciating clowns. ★★★½

Charivari and finale. The lady from the audience is pulled back on stage for a tender scene with Daniel, while White clowns at one side. Surprise – there are actually a few laughs here! Then another chaotic crowd sequence brings the two-hour show to a merciful end. ★★½

Dance 12 - Finale 

Set and lighting. Set Designer Patricia Ruel and Lighting Designer Bruno Rafie did a noticeably impressive job. The shifting, colorful backdrop made from a huge, lightbox screen and a glossy, lighted, moving floor add real impact, especially to the dance numbers. ★★★★

Costumes. Costume Designer Dominique Lemieux evokes flamboyant vaudeville style with glittering, shimmering, iridescent and phosphorescent fabrics. ★★★

Music. Composer and Musical Director Scott Price has put together a good live band, but nothing in his score will leave you humming. ★★½

So, let’s do the math: 37½ points, divided by 16 items, equals 2.34. Do we average up to 2.5 stars or down to 2?

Given the incredible pre-show hype, which included spammers posting to local blogs, and the price of decent seats, I’m inclined to average down. Cirque fans who need a fix are advised to skip this and wait till March, when the perennially touring Alegria will play in Hoffman Estates.

 

Rating: ★★