"Banana Shpeel" presented by Cirque du Soleil at the Beacon Theatre, May 23, 2010
Cirque du Soleil, having turned the concept of circus on its head, creating a international brand and establishing permanent productions around the world, has finally opened its production of Banana Shpeel for a summer run at the gloriously restored Beacon Theater on the upper west side in New York. Cirque has, of course, visited New York regularly with its traveling productions. Given the opportunity to attract the tourist dollar, it's easy to see the advantage of a site-specific production here.
Cirque's productions all follow the same general concept of various acts of contortion, juggling, and acrobatics interspersed with a running clown theme, accompanied by ethereal, new age-style music and singers. For NY, they took what might have been an interesting concept of a vaudeville theme to form the arc of this production. Vaudeville has been dead for a long time, and it's dead for a reason. Writer and director David Shiner is unable to revive it in the not funny framework he has created. As production problems leaked to the press earlier this year, several show doctors reportedly came through to fix the issues.
Based on what I sat through this afternoon, this piece is DOA. Cirque seems to have made the mistake of forgetting what the do well and throwing away a lot of time and money on what they don't. I get the idea of trying to create a "Broadway-style" version for NY. But, I don't get why they didn't realize it isn't going to work. The actual acts are up to Cirque's usual standards: interesting and unique, impeccably performed by visually attractive artists.
Further, the show is billed as "family-friendly," with which I must disagree based on a handful of off-color lines including, "...open a can of shut the f*** up," bleeped perhaps, but fully recognizable nonetheless. The clown wearing the trenchcoat and only red briefs underneath is flasher-perv creepy, not comic relief. The Cirque website says, "This show is not recommended for children under eight years old. Children under the age of five are not permitted in the theater." Apparently, no one told the staff at the Beacon. I saw plenty of kids under 8 and heard what sounded like at least one infant in the audience.
Still, I like the idea of a presence for Cirque in New York, much in the sense of the permanent productions in Las Vegas and Orlando. Hopefully they will be back with something that works next time. As my friend R quipped, "Cirque has slipped on its own Banana Shpeel."
Banana Shpeel is scheduled to run through August 29.