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Clowning Around Doesn't (entirely) Slip Up Cirque's 'BANANA SHPEEL'

With a production seemingly pre-cursed with exceedingly high expectations, heavy on-line back-stage footage presence, and massive preview period re-writes and mid-rehearsal firings, BANANA SHPEEL, Cirque du Soleil's vaudeville-infused world premiere, is not as bad as you've been lead to believe.

Really, it's not.

With SHPEEL, Cirque du Soleil (world renowned for their grandeur, skill, beauty, and ingenious staging) offers a "new twist on vaudeville."  Unlike Cirque's previous incarnations (which are either housed in pop-up touring tents or arenas built specifically for the given show), SHPEEL utilizes the historic Chicago Theatre for their first endeavor into proscenium-staged theatre - a "you're the audience there and we're the performers here" medium not quite yet mastered by the troupe.

What starts off as a rickety variety show audition (led by the blink-and-you'll-miss-him Jerry Kernion as the gruff Marty Schmelky) quickly turns into a flashy song-and-dance routine akin to television's SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE (where the cast, oddly enough, made their prime time debut several months ago ... with several more cast members in tow).  The framework of SHPEEL focuses around masters of ceremony Wayne and Daniel (clowns Wayne Wilson and Daniel Passer) and three misfits (GorDon WhiteClaudio Carneiro, Patrick de ValetteBenny Hilling their way through Schmelky's show-within-a-show variety evening.  Thankfully, breaking up the evening's schmaltz are top-notch dance numbers and thrilling acrobatics - features one has come to expect from a Cirque performance.  Features the troupe have spent 25 years perfecting.

Unfortunately, director David Shiner's script hasn't been incubating as long.

Though Patricia Ruel's set and Bruno Rafie's lighting design offers some beautifully colorful imagery, the show is focused on performance over spectacle.  This would be fine -and welcomed- had I not found myself tick-tocking the moments away as the clowns spouted out (amongst a litany of other bland "jokes") Chris Farley "Shut your pie hole!" allusions.  Allusions made popular some 18 or so years ago.  To go through a 2+ week preview period and still use jokes that don't land is shocking.  Yes, SHPEEL is a vaudeville send-up, but nothing about the scripted banter felt fresh. 

Success-wise, SHPEEL is about 70% "there," for there truly are moments of undeniable delight.   The majority of SHPEEL's appeal comes in the form of good ol' fashioned Cirque du Soleil-ery: circus acrobatics (you do not want to miss Dima Shine or Vanessa Alvarez's routines), thrilling dance numbers (kudos to Jared Grimes' hip-hop-infused choreography and the amazingly talented group of 11 dancers), and Dominique Lemieux's eye-popping costumes.  The problematic 30% comes in the form of Shriner's wonky script.  He has crafted an interestingly misguided evening with variety routines thrown in to merely wet audience members' whistles.  With Cirque de Soleil, we're used to being fully drenched.

Bottom line: what's good is good and what needs work should be cut.  New York (and any other upcoming touring location) will see a tighter production. But for an evening of phenomenal dance numbers and electrifying big-band-esque music (Scott Price and Jean-Francois Cote's score is handled with care by leader Robert Cookman and his swingin' on-stage band), BANANA SHPEEL is worth a looksee.

BANANA SHPEEL runs now through January 3, 2010 at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State Street.  For tickets, call 800.745.3000 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com or www.thechicagotheatre.com.

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From This Author William Panek

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