nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
May 22, 2010
Banana Shpeel, Cirque du Soleil's show du jour, features very impressive acrobatics. But then the characters start talking, and the problems begin.
Shpeel's troubles haven't exactly been hidden from the press in recent months. Cast members Michael Longoria (the first replacement Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys) and Annaleigh Ashford (a Glinda replacement in Wicked, currently in Hair) were written out of the script during rehearsals for the Chicago tryout when the creative team decided to go in another direction. The reviews in Chicago excoriated writer/director David Shiner and the Cirque team for creating a show that was cold, tonally confused, and often incomprehensible.
So Shiner, who also wrote and directed the currently touring Cirque show Kooza, and the team went back to work. The New York start date was pushed back numerous times in their attempts to salvage this vaudeville-inspired piece to play the storied Beacon Theater. The score was thrown out, cast members were fired, replaced and, apparently, rehired.
From what I saw at the Beacon, a few days after the opening night performance, Banana Shpeel, truth be told, is only half bad. For every awe-inspiring specialty act, there's a blatantly unfunny and unoriginal dialogue scene waiting just around the corner.
I can't speak of the plot for the Chicago version, but I understand it has changed considerably. Marty Schmelkin (Danny Rutigliano) is a diminutive theatrical impresario with a volatile personality. For the audience today, he is putting on a variety show called "Banana Shpeel," which features foot juggling, contortionists, mime, hand balancing, tap dancing, you name it, with talented performers from across the world. We see all of that, and the struggles behind the scenes, involving Schmelky's two assistants Wayne (Wayne Wilson) and Daniel (Daniel Passer), his secretary/love interest Margaret (Shereen Hickman), and three runaway clowns, one of whom is the creepiest thing I have ever seen.
At the end of the first act, Schmelky decides to reform himself and become kinder and gentler. We see the results in Act Two. Unfortunately, none of this scripted material is particularly funny (there are a few laughs here and there) and, as far as plots go, to call it "shoestring," is being kind. Rutigliano, hired after the tryout, doesn't have the bombastic personality to carry the show as master of ceremonies.
One credit I must give to Schmelky: he certainly knows talent when he sees it, because the circus performers do indeed dazzle. Particular stand-outs include foot juggler Vanessa Alvarez, Russian hand balancer Dima Shine (Dimitry Bulkin), hat juggler Le Tuan, and contortion trio Tsybenova Ayagma, Tsydendambaeva Imin, and Zhambalova Lilia. There's also a black-light dance routine and a few tap routines (choreography by Jared Grimes), including one on a giant staircase, (though it pales in comparison to a similar, better-executed number from the 2001 revival of 42nd Street.
Shiner's script (with "additional shpeel" provided by The Drowsy Chaperone's Bob Martin) still suffers from a distinct lack of cohesion and is still tonally confused. For a show aimed at children (which this is), there is a surprising amount of adult humor, sexual innuendo, and (just one) bleeped f-bomb. There's also that creepy clown played by Patrick de Valette, a frightening, wire-haired flasher who routinely opens his raincoat to reveal nothing but an emaciated physique and a very tight pair of red underwear. It is disturbing just to recall.
There's no skimping on design and, with costumes by Dominique Lemieux, sets by Patricia Ruel, and lights by Bruno Rafie, Banana Shpeel is the very tops.
Reading the initial plot, the one that involved Longoria and Ashford as central love interests who were trying to make it in show business, with a tyrannical Marty Schmelkin character who "sows terror and reigns supreme," I couldn't help but wonder how much better the show could have been with that storyline. It could have been all great, instead of just half. And with the highest [premium] ticket price set at $199, I'd want all great.