Banana Shpeel is billed as "A New Twist on Vaudeville" and was written and directed by David Shiner, who co-created Fool Moon for Broadway as well the Cirque's current touring show, Kooza. Shiner was one of the Cirque's most notable clowns before creating these, shows and his concept for re-imagining Vaudeville in Cirque du Soleil terms includes a heavy emphasis on clowning. Sadly, this is done largely at the expense of the laws-of-physics defying acrobatics that have contributed so much to the shows' popularity. In Banana Shpeel, there are just two such acts. Jeff Retzlanff and Kelsey Wiens do a contortionist pas de deux in act one that is impressive if not surprising. It's only the second acrobatic act, the hand balancing by the stunning young Russian gymnast Dmitry Bulkin in the second half of the show, that astonishes. The muscular athlete extends himself at perfect right angles from a pole, balances on top with only his hands and, while on top, extends his legs backwards all the way down to his hands. That's the sort of magic we look for from Cirque du Soleil, but it's the only act in the show that amazes that way. Ironically, it comes right after a production number that combines magic, dance and clowning that is neither magical nor very funny. There's also a hat juggler (Tuan Le) and foot juggler (Vanessa Alvarez) that are amusing if not amazing.
Banana Shpeel's other deviation from more typical Cirque du Soleil shows is its inclusion of dance numbers. An ensemble of seven women and five men perform five production numbers accompanied by a live 8-piece band perched atop set designer Patricia Ruel's bridge-like bandstand upstage. With the attractive dancers wardrobed in Dominique Lemieux's colorful modular costumes, the numbers, imaginatively lit by Bruno Rafie, are fun and satisfying in a traditional musical comedy way. This is okay for a musical theater fan, but may not be what Cirque du Soleil enthusiasts come to see.
Clowning, on the other hand, is a key element of the company's formula, but the sad fact is that the comedy material here, though it has a few moments, is just not funny enough. The show gets off to a very slow start with an opening act that presumes to be an audition for the "Schmelky Spectacular," the vaudeville extravaganza being presented. The acts are deliberately dreadful, but not funny dreadful. For example, Claudio Carneiro is an auditionee whose act is to impersonate a person with knee problems simply by walking and saying "ow." Ow, indeed. Patrick de Valette is an aspiring modern dancer with a bony body who prances around the stage in nothing but pink briefs. The best of the lot is Cirque du Soleil regular Gordon White who has a funny bit doing inappropriately literal pantomimes of a love story related by fellow clown Daniel Passer. As Passer narrates an imagined love story between himself and a woman selected from the audience (she gets more stage time than much of the cast), describing how "she batted her eyes at him," White mimes a grotesque but funny action involving a baseball bat. Chief clowns Passer, Wayne Wilson and Jerry Kernion (who plays Schmelky) just don't have much to work with, though. At moments we're reminded of the sort of anarchic physical humor the Marx Brothers developed in vaudeville before bringing it so memorably to their movies. It shows where this concept might have gone had they come up with worthy material.
The company tries hard to make the proceedings a party, with their relentless energy and even allowing popcorn to be brought into the theater. If one can get past the weak clown material dominating act one, the show can be enjoyable, but probably doesn't offer enough to meet the expectations of a Cirque du Soleil fan, especially at ticket prices close to those charged in Las Vegas. The producers will probably want to rethink this proposition before their planned opening off-Broadway in New York next year.
Banana Shpeel performs through January 3, 2010 at The Chicago Theatre. Regular tickets range from $23 to $98 and limited Premium and Tapis Rouge VIP Experience tickets are also available. Tickets for all performances can be purchased online at www.cirquedusoleil.com or www.thechicagotheatre.com or by calling 1-800-745-3000.