Cirque de Soleil slipped on a “Banana Shpeel” of its own making when it opened its vaudeville-inspired, legit-bound extravaganza in December at the Chicago Theater. The dire reception caused the February 4 New York premiere to be postponed again and again while the Cirque wizards unzipped the banana and painstakingly patched it back into shape. Easier said than done; but the delays and the Cirque/MSG bankroll have allowed writer/director David Shiner to turn this fruit salad into a veritable banana split of a show, with three creamy scoops topped by gloppy fudge and plenty of nuts.
The nuts in question are the clowns and comics. None of that low pratfall and squirting-flower-in-the-face stuff here, or very little of it. As Mr. Shiner has demonstrated in the past (most notably in his Tony Award-winning collaboration with Bill Irwin, “Fool Moon”), he is of the thinking-clown school. His current charges mix the broadest humor with slyly dry stuff which has you laughing from both sides of your seat.
Danny Rutigliano heads the cast as Marty Schmelky, the producer of the show. (The program gives Schmelky Productions full credit, with a thick pencil crossing out “Soleil” in favor of “Cirque du Schmelky.”) Rutigliano, a long-time Timon of “Lion King,” plays the megalomaniacal showman as if he were Danny DeVito doing Jackie Gleason. He partners with the droll Shereen Hickman as his secretary Margaret, wearing a wig constructed with thirteen pencils.
He is backed up by a group that includes Gordon White as the world’s oldest mime; Patrick de Valette, as a pencil-thin modern dancer with stringy blond hair, lime shoes, turquoise kneesocks and orange underwear — nothing more; and Claudio Carneiro, who has a great second-act set piece as a playboy on the make. Daniel Passer and Wayne Wilson provide more traditional clowning, as Schmelky’s assistants.
The machinations of Shiner and friends since their December debacle include the replacement of the original Schmelky with Rutigliano; adding the role of Margaret, the one female principal; and replacing the music with a new score by Simon Carpentier, which is played by an energetic live band of eight.
Show fits like a glove in the Beacon, which Madison Square Garden Entertainment bought in 2006 as an adjunct to the much larger Radio City Music Hall. Legendary showplace had deteriorated into something of a dump; now, thanks to the $16 million restoration, it is perhaps the most resplendent showplace in the city. “Banana Shpeel” is playing the standard Broadway eight-a-week schedule (with two Sunday perfs replacing Monday and Tuesday nights). Show is booked until August 29 — certainly the longest Beacon stint in memory — after which it departs on a major city tour.
Also on hand is the typical assortment of cirque circus acts, some stronger than others. There are also several dance interludes from choreographer Jared Grimes, including a black light number, which is very good by either circus or Broadway standards. Dominique Lemiuex’s costumes and Bruno Rafie’s lighting are especially effective here.
But it is the clowns — and Mr. Shiner’s wide-ranging comedic scope — that make “Banana Shpeel” such a boisterously winning funfest.