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Banana Shpeel

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tuan Le
Photo by OSA Images..

The more a show is based on routines that are regurgitated, warmed-over, or just plain stale (or, if you're in a euphemistic mood, "tried and true") the harder it has to work to distinguish itself from decades—if not centuries—of competition. But because even the most familiar ideas on which it's based have been proven time and time again to work, even an impressively sized disappointment can ultimately only crash so hard. This is the chief reason the new Cirque du Soleil show at the Beacon Theatre, Banana Shpeel, does not instant relegate itself to the outskirts of Flopville.

Any other company, with any less vision and even a moderately lower budget, would never be able to pull off such an accomplishment—especially given the baggage the show has carried with it to opening night. I'm not even talking about the gossip mill. Yes, there have been months of whispering of "tryout hell," with the show lingering in development and provoking incessant rumors about these performers or that composer being let go, that Cirque bigwig clashing with writer-director David Shiner (of Fool Moon fame and Seussical infamy), and so on. And, yes, the final product looks jagged and inconsistently conceived, if not ragged or distraught.

No, far more potentially dangerous to Banana Shpeel's fortunes are the basic details of its current existence. Combining two sets of abundant clichés—the Cirque shows' Continental samplings (balancing acts! contortionists! juggling!) with American vaudeville's splashy, anything-for-a-thrill entertainment nature—the show has to work extra hard to locate within itself even a drop of original thinking. That it somehow manages to find a palatable enough balance between these incompatible performance styles to sustain a glitzy—if, at nearly two and a half hours, overlong—evening is no small achievement.

Vanessa Alvarez
Photo by OSA Images..

You've seen variations on every act before, if not at Cirque du Soleil then at Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasies, or perhaps down at the Spiegeltent. A voluptuous woman (Vanessa Alvarez) juggles guitars and giant pinwheels with her feet. A young man (Tuan Le) juggles six red hats at once. Preston Jamieson and Kelsey Wiens are an acrobatic team; Dima Shine rips off his shirt and undulates around and on top of a towering metal pole for five minutes; and a trio of lithe "Slither Sisters" (Imin Tsydendambaeva, Ayagma Tsybenova, Lilia Zhambalova) bend their bodies into shapes that traditional physics insists aren't possible. The interim dance spots, whether for a tap duo (Joseph and Josette Wiggan) or a tap group or a bunch of black-light bananas are, as choreographed by Jared Grimes, been-there-done-that presentations.

And certainly the "plot" isn't new news. The barking, Shubertian impresario, Marty Schmelky (Danny Rutigliano), a devoted servant of entertainment who can't be entertained himself; his goofy assistants (Daniel Passer and Wayne Wilson), who are determined to change his ways; and his long-adoring secretary (Shereen Hickman), who knows him better than he does himself—all of them get twisted about, reorganized, and happy-ending-ed before the final blackout dare rear its ugly head.

The success amid all this dross is primarily accumulative, in the way it frequently is with the better Cirque outings. Organization founder Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix (billed as "artistic guides"), and "Director of Creation" Serge Roy, know that following this solo with that ensemble, this eye-popping tangling of bodies with that comedy act, and then topping it all off with a pre-intermission magic show works theatrically if not psychologically—and arguing with such logic is functionally impossible. When the accompanying accoutrements are elaborate, expensive-looking, and thematically correct—as Dominique Lemieux's sequin-addicted costumes, Patricia Ruel's colorful (if minimalist) razzle-dazzle sets, Bruno Rafie's lights, and especially Simon Carpentier's show-biz-at-any-cost score—it's even harder.

Cirque du Soleil, after all, is never about "plays," but rather playing. Even though many of the dances go on far too long, and a trio of European-style clowns (Claudio Carneiro as an impressionist, Gordon White as "the Oldest Mime in the World", and Patrick de Valette as a clothes-doffing modern dancer) are usually nowhere near as funny as the creators apparently think, the show has an essential innocence and good time–seeking attitude. Like Cirque du Soleil's often-unappreciated holiday show, Wintuk, that's enough—if only because the show doesn't pretend to be anything else.

It is telling, however, that the strongest scene isn't one of the physical feats but instead just good old-fashioned stage comedy. Carneiro transforms into a rich man who's spurned by one intended and then finds another in that most likely of unlikely places: the audience. Escorting his "volunteer" back to the stage, he leads her through a surprisingly charming date of driving, dinner, and dancing that uses no words but nonetheless says a great deal about both clowning and romantic roundelays—assuming there's a difference.

This is as quiet, as unadventurous, and as traditional as the show gets, but it works. If playing it safe is what's kept Banana Shpeel aloft through all that alleged strife, isn't that ultimately better than slipping, falling, and blowing the pratfall that would have made the danger worth it in the first place?

Banana Shpeel
Through August 29
Beacon Theater, 2124 Broadway between West 74th & 75th Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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