Review: Banana Shpeel
It’s disappointing to see a company that usually performs its function so well shift away from its brand. That’s what Cirque du Soleil has done with its production of Banana Shpeel at the Beacon Theatre, making the mistake of focusing on narrative rather than acrobatic spectacle, which has become synonymous with the company. It’s the equivalent of Coca-Cola delving into interior decorating. You make a great drink, but stay away from my living room!
Banana Shpeel is Cirque’s attempted redefinition of Vaudeville. A sort of show within a show, Shpeel is run by a tyrant of a producer, Marty Schmelky (played by The Lion King’s Danny Rutigliano with such Danny DeVito bluster that the Hollywood actor should sue). Accompanied by two dull stagehands (Daniel Passer and Wayne Wilson) and a personal assistant (Shereen Hickman, the only presence with genuine pizzazz), Schmelky unnecessarily presents
the acts to the audience. However, there aren’t as many acts as there are interludes with Schmelky bossing his workers around or ranting about whatever foibles are plaguing the show. And if those pedestrian shenanigans weren’t enough, there’s also a drippy plotline worked in about Schmelky trying to become a nicer man. Writer/director David Shiner should be ashamed.
In light of the overacting on display and the embarrassingly trite storylines, you’d think Banana Shpeel was a show for kids. Strangely, it’s not. The characters throw out random expletives and a few dirty jokes. The quips don’t hit their mark and don’t fit the tone of the show. During the dragging Schmelky parts, Banana Shpeel draws such a focus to unnecessary, disgusting imagery. As a mischievous streaker, Patrick De Valette runs around the stage nearly naked and resembling an uncooked turkey, while Gordon White executes cheap, almost mean-spirited humor as a geriatric with a flatulence problem who can barely walk. I don’t think this is what Cirque du Soleil fans are shelling out as much as $200 for when they purchase their tickets.
What the show does get right is its signature Cirque du Soleil acts. Vanessa Alvarez dazzles with her foot juggling, tossing sheets of fabric around while on her back. Dmitry Bulkin garnered the most applause at the performance I attended with his hand balancing, in which he performs probably the most interesting pole dance one might ever see. The contortionist trio of Tsybenova Ayagma, Tsydendambaeva Imin, and Zhambalova Lilia twist and arc enough to make your back hurt as your jaw falls to the floor. All these truly amazing performances though were too few and far between to keep me from doing my own contortionist act in my seat throughout Banana Shpeel’s agonizing two-and-a-half hour run time. With this show, the globally respected company has inexplicably forgotten what audiences look for in a Cirque du Soleil production.
I was invited to see Banana Shpeel and did not rush it. There is a student rush policy in effect for the show. Tickets are available two hours prior to each performance on Wednesday and Thursday matinee and evening shows for $25 each, up to two tickets per ID.