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.

 

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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: ★★

 

Review: Village Players’ “You Can’t Take It With You”

You Can't Take It With You

 Village Players Theater presents

You Can’t Take It With You

by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
directed by Jack Hickey
runs through Nov. 22 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

take-it-with-you During hard times, people seek the warmth of the well-known, the solace of childhood memory and happier days. In dining, that means comfort food. The stage equivalent — comfort theater, if you will — arises in low-risk revivals.

So, this season has seen Animal Crackers at the Goodman Theatre, a revival of a 1928 Marx Brothers comedy.  Porchlight Theatre did The Fantasticks, that long-running off-Broadway favorite. Marriott Theatre revived Hairspray, a 2002 Broadway hit based on a 1988 cult film set in 1962. And so on.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart‘s quirky You Can’t Take It With You needs no economic crisis to be worth a remount. Although this 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner certainly shows its origins in the Great Depression, You Can’t Take It With You is one of the funniest and most endearing plays of the 20th century. The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson called the original production "tickling fun," and so it remains.

Everyone should know this play. If you’ve never seen it, take advantage of Village Players‘ fine production in Oak Park.

A little acquaintance with 1930s popular history will enrich your experience, but it’s by no means required. Some understanding of the times in which the play was written may be needed to surmount 21st-century sensibilities, though for its period, You Can’t Take It With You seems quite progressive.

The farce follows the eccentric Sycamore family. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Paul Tinsley), the retired patriarch, has spent 35 years going to college commencements, collecting snakes and avoiding income tax.

His daughter, Penelope (Judith Laughlin), has spent the past eight years engaged in writing never-finished plays. Penny’s husband, Paul Sycamore (Errol McLendon), manufactures fireworks in the basement with help from the family’s lodger, Mr. DePinna (Eric Cowgill). Housekeeper Rheba (Elana Elyce), serves up dinners of corn flakes, watermelon and mystery meat and entertains her unemployed boyfriend, Donald (Ronaldo Coxon), overnight.

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Granddaughter Essie (Zoe Palko) makes candies for sale but spends every spare moment practicing, unsuccessfully, to be a ballerina. As her boisterous Russian dance teacher, Boris Kolenkhov (Jeff McVann), puts it, "She stinks." Essie’s husband, Ed Carmichael (Josh Wintersteen), prints up unlikely circulars on a hobby letterpress and plays the xylophone.

The most conventional member of the clan, granddaughter Alice (Jhenai Mootz), a secretary, is in love with her boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Bryan Wakefield), though she fears her beloved but trying family won’t pass muster with his stuffy, Wall Street father (James Turano) and snobbish socialite mother (Katherine Keberlein). Also drifting through the scenes are an irritated IRS investigator (Michael M. Jones), a couple of G-men (Jones and Anthony Collaro), a drunken actress and the Russian Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Courtney Boxwell).

They don’t write plays like this one anymore.

Village Players’ whole cast and crew merit kudos for this nicely presented ensemble piece. Director Jack Hickey paces his actors well, keeping things moving and the comedy coming. As Grandpa, Tinsley is perhaps overly laconic, but Laughlin does an especially sweet job as Penny, and Palko is wonderfully zany as Essie. Coxon offers some rare comic turns as Donald, as well.

Ricky Lurie‘s effective period costumes deserve mention, too, particularly Essie’s absurd ballet bloomers.

It’s tickling fun!

Rating: «««

 

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Review: Goodman Theatre’s “Animal Crackers”

 Ludicrous yet loveable, “Animal Crackers” is rollicking good time

(clockwise from top) Ora Jones (Mrs. Rittenhouse), Ed Kross (Horatio Jamison/Zeppo), Joey Slotnick (Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding/Groucho), Molly Brennan (The Professor/Harpo) and Jonathan Brody (Emanuel Ravelli/Chico).  Photo by Eric Y. Exit

Goodman Theatre presents

Animal Crackers

Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Music and Lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Now extended thru November 1st (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

 (l to r) Mara Davi (Mrs. Whitehead) and Joey Slotnick (Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding/Groucho).  Photo by Eric Y. Exit It’s pretty rare that a stage production can be described as both “brilliant” and “stupid.” Theatre quite often views itself as an intellectual pursuit (or at least it would like to), leaving the silly, ridiculous, and trivial to blockbuster movies. The Goodman’s mounting of the Marx Brother’s classic musical Animal Crackers, though, seems to be going for that idiocy much of today’s theatre is afraid to touch. It succeeds beautifully. With an intensely committed cast and under the energized direction of Henry Wishcamper, Animal Crackers is remarkably, refreshingly stupid.

A few coincidences also help make Animal Crackers oddly connected to our current world. First, the musical is premiering against Fake Steppenwolf Theatre’s current show exploring the history of the “Piltdown Man,” a hoax that claimed to be the missing link between man and ape. And both of these shows now have an interesting new relevance with last week’s announcement concerning the discovery of the oldest known human ancestor, “Ardi.” Now Animal Crackers doesn’t trouble  itself with Darwin, biology, or the scientific method; instead, it lambastes the scientific community and high society with a keen sense of farce that could only come Production_06from the Marx Brothers. There is a silent The Professor (Molly Brennan in the role created by Harpo), whose subject of study is never revealed, besides his penchant for chasing every woman in the room. Then there is the wise-cracking African explorer Captain Spaulding (Joey Slotnick with Groucho’s signature mustache and cigar), who claims that his retirement would be his greatest contribution to science. Along with the scheming musician Emanuel Ravelli (Jonathan Brody in Chico’s role), the group wrecks havoc among a group of painters, newspaper columnists, debutants, art collectors, and a few lovers. The musical wasn’t produced for over 50 years after the Marx Brothers’ Broadway original and is still a very rare sight for theatre audiences. Wishcamper’s revival proves that Animal Crackers still has spirit, even though the last Marx Brother died 30 years ago.

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The big question I had was if Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody would just be doing a simple imitation or inventing the characters anew. The end result is a hefty portion of both. Harpo, Groucho, and Chico are reproduced on stage, but the performers find plenty of new material within the script. At one point, Spaulding performs a Production_11sarcastic homage to last season’s O’Neill festival. At another point, The Professor whips out a rifle from his coat and shoots wildly at the orchestra and the ceiling, causing several plush ducks to fall onto the stage. Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody never miss a comic beat, and they will not hesitate to chastise the audience if there’s not enough laughter (“The Addam’s Family isn’t in town till November”). The work of clowning director Paul Kalina is very clear. There are hilarious comic bits with hats, playing cards, tables, stuff shoved into The Professor’s jacket, paintings, ladders, the list goes on and on.

  Production_03Wishcamper cast all of the parts with only nine actors, which swells the madness of the script to another level. The lovers, devious debutants, and other members of high society that are constantly insulted and/or hit on by Brennan, Slotnick, and Brody are all tightly performed. However, the play’s plot, which serves as more of a frame for the Marxs’ antics than a real storyline, becomes a bit tiring by the second act. Shaving the run time down would definitely help the show pop a bit more.

Wishcamper and his cast confirm that Animal Crackers can be much more than just a device for the original performers. With their spirited vitality, they thoroughly push the musical’s farce, ridiculousness, and, yes, even its stupidity.

Rating: «««

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