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If you think you know Cirque du Soleil, think again. Banana Shpeel, billed as “a Riot of Ha-Has, La-Las and Ta-Das,” is definitely not your typical Cirque production. The dance numbers alone dictate this is not so much a new show as it is a new performance genre. And considering its creative source, writer-director David Shiner (whose Fool Moon with Bill Irwin garnered Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards), it’s no surprise.
With Banana Shpeel, Shiner, whose background with Cirque du Soleil includes the creation of their clown-centric hit KOOZA in 2007, has turned his attention to the world of vaudeville, incorporating some unexpected twists, turns and pratfalls.
“Banana Shpeel is pure, fun slapstick,” says Shiner, adding, “There are certainly elements...that are recognizable from vaudeville, especially in the eccentric dance, singing and great clowning. But while the content may draw upon the traditional form, the approach we’re taking is very modern.”
This becomes clear the minute the character of producer extraordinaire Marty Schmelky steps onto the stage at the grandly restored Beacon Theatre (a $16 million project completed a year ago last February). Immediately, the audience knows they’re in for a night of rollicking entertainment.
“Give me color, give me music, give me dance,” exclaims Schmelky (Broadway vet Danny Rutigliano), and the stage is instantly set for a dazzling array of high-stepping dancers, live musicians, madcap comedic characters, and Cirque’s trademark contortionists and acrobats. [Keep your eyes peeled for Schmelky’s wacky assistant, Margaret (Shereen Hickman), in her kitschy pre-show romp through the audience seeking out “new talent.”]
The international cast features 38 performers with a broad spectrum of unique talents. Spanish foot juggler Vanessa Alvarez is on her back onstage, twirling various objects with her feet, but she’s not lying down on the job. With exquisite precision, Alvarez keeps all manner of things spinning on her toes, all to the tune of lilting Latin beats. In the background, women gently move butterfly-shaped fans against a backdrop of vivid colors.
The Serpentine Sisters hail from Mongolia and bring new meaning to the word “flexible.” The three lithe contortionists slither and slide in sinuous symmetry across the stage in astounding patterns.
Throughout the show, clowns keep the mood light. Claudio Carneiro from Brazil (who performed in the Cirque du Soleil shows The Beatles’ LOVE and Varekai) happily shattered the fourth wall completely when he plucked an unsuspecting woman from the audience and brought her onto the stage for a pantomime scenario about a date night on the town.
As the cost-conscious Schmelky remarked once the act was over, “Funny, touching, and I didn’t have to pay all the actors.”
From Russia with love -- enhanced by awesome physical skill and magnetism -- is another key performer, the perfectly proportioned Dmitry Bulkin, who executes precision acrobatic moves in a hand-balancing act during which he swings and sways sensuously around a tall pole (guy pole-dancing...how great is that?), his rippling muscles working the crowd.
Then there’s juggler Tuan Le from Vietnam, who amazes theatergoers as he catapults more and more bright red hats through the air -- never missing a beat. For the retro record, his high-flying, boomeranging hat tricks hearken back to the best circus-inspired acts that appeared on Ed Sullivan’s variety show in the 1950s and ’60s.
And in the really-cool-coincidence department, the Art Deco-style Beacon Theatre (designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager) opened in 1929 to showcase -- drum roll please -- vaudeville acts! Okay, it was also designed as a forum for musicals, dramas, operas, and movies, but for the summer of 2010, the focus is, without question, all vaudeville, all Schmelky, all the time.
Banana Shpeel is playing through August 29 at the Beacon Theatre, 2124 Broadway (btw. W. 74th & 75th Sts.). For tickets, call 212-465-6500 or click here.
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