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Travel Article: Thoughts on Cirque in Chicago & Abound


Cirque du Soleil ended its world premiere, the troubled but colorfully explosive BANANA SHPEEL, this weekend at the Chicago Theatre.  While I wasn't completely blown away by Cirque's latest endeavor, I did find its technical aspects, toe-tapping music, and energetic choreography made the evening pop.  Cirque's hope to bring a new type of modern vaudeville (their self-dubbed "new twist") into a proscenium setting needs a good amount of rewrites during the upcoming months before its New York premiere at the Beacon Theatre.  To join the ranks of its hit-making brother and sister shows, serious attention needs to be given to lead clowns Daniel & Wayne's material, as well as the show's overall focus of old vs. new and fresh vs. flat.

There's an old saying that states, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

That's what was bobbing around my head with SHPEEL: they're trying, as of now unsuccessfully, their darn'dest to branch out into a legitimate theatrical foray - but that's not to say it's not worth their valiant attempt to change up and shake up an already successful commodity. Cirque works smart business and they definitely know what they're doing, as experienced in my recent trip to Las Vegas.

Soon after SHPEEL's opening in early December, I hopped 'cross country to experience the kind of flashy, solidified, Vegassy spectacle Cirque du Soleil has to offer. KA at the MGM Grand -wowing the Strip since 2005- was on my plate, so it was bound to be an exciting week in Chicago and beyond.  Between KA and SHPEEL, I was in for a world of different theatrical offerings, but this isn't a comparison piece.  It can't be.  Comparing two Cirque du Soleil shows (a company who prides itself, and rightfully so, in 25 years of diverse entertainment) would be like comparing apples and, well, bananas (sorry!).

From the moment you step into KA's lobby (after handing your ticket to fully show-attired ushers), you get a sense of the kind of massive and fully immersed evening you're in for.  An epic and looming score -with hauntingly ambient sound effects- greet you as you either either head towards the bar (a Vegas necessity) or peruse the merch (a Cirque du Soleil necessity).  The show begins, though, as soon as you enter the theatre house itself.  Its constructed grid working of iron and wood is a masterpiece in and of itself.  With fireballs blazing sporadically from a pitch black pit of emptiness, more cleverly-costumed ushers (a mix of woodland sprites and camouflaged hunters) seat you.

From there, KA's beautifully simple story (warrior twins separated by an evil warlord) unfolds during nearly 2 hours of thrilling martial arts, harnessed acrobats flying in every direction, luscious costumes, puppetry, and a stage you have to see to believe.  The central playing field is a grand and elaborate hydraulic lift, capable of contorting itself in a dizzying number of configurations and landscaped.  Enough good things cannot be said about Cirque's epic journey.

It's theatrical Asian fusion sans the wasabi.

But what works best for KA, as well as nearly all of Cirque's shows, is their ability to universally unite an audience without the bond of using one common language. They let their glorious imagery, talents, and skill tell their story, not words.  Maybe that's where BANANA SHPEEL slips (sorry again!) up: there's just too much talking. But then again, maybe they're brave enough to break their own successful mold, try something new, and move forward.

Nonetheless, our little town was lucky enough to house another world premiere this past December (two, actually, within the same block radius!). That alone says something exciting about the amount of respect & trust producers have in Chicago and its audiences. Between BANANA SHPEEL and THE ADDAMS FAMILY, we had a heavy work-in-progress Winter, but the results were fun while they visited.

Anywho, thanks for hosting a magical evening, KA, and happy Shpring, SHPEEL!

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