Cirque du Soleil has been stretching its extraordinary brand for a while now, extending from imagistic dream-scapes combining acrobatics and clowning into takes on burlesque (“Zumanity”), jukebox musical spectaculars (“The Beatles Love”) and star-driven magic (“Believe”). But with clowns dominating this frantic, vaudeville-inspired show, which heads to New York’s Beacon Theater in February, Cirque takes a real slip on its “Banana Shpeel.”
This offering marks Cirque’s first time creating a show for a legit proscenium space, and writer-director David Shiner (“Fool Moon,” “Kooza”) hasn’t cracked how to embrace the audience from that presentational remove or create a complete atmosphere.
The conceit is simple enough. Vaudevillean blowhard-boss Schmelky (Jerry Kernion) is holding auditions for his show. Two host clowns, Daniel Passer and Wayne Wilson, quibble as they pull names from a hat and invite up auditioners.
A trio of misfits emerge one by one: Claudio Carneiro, who impersonates people with knee injuries by saying “ow” with each step; Gordon White, a Christopher Lloyd lookalike who portrays the world’s oldest mime; and Patrick de Valette, a diminutive guy with big black spectacles and long stringy hair, who does weirdo modern dance movements in orange underwear.
These would-be vaudevillians then take over the show, as the relatively meek and ineffectual Daniel and Wayne, or the loud and ineffectual Schmelky, can never quite dispose of them.
It’s a lot of slapstick, and a lot of musty clown routines, including an extended restaurant sketch at the end of act one that goes on and on and epitomizes the primary problem.
Shiner appears to be trying to comment on vaudeville and stage it at the same time, but we get neither creative commentary nor inspired execution. We don’t even get a sense of nostalgia for an old form; instead, we’re left with stale bits that never fully challenge the performers’ talents.
The whole lacks an emotional connection — none of these characters successfully befriends us — and, more importantly, there’s no feeling of spontaneity, perhaps the most essential element in manufacturing comic chaos.
The non-clown components are better, and the show keeps threatening to emerge into grand entertainment without ever quite doing so.
There’s a slate of fine dancers, and one of the highlights is the big act-two tap number, although even then the horn-heavy music intrudes rather than complements, a problem throughout.
Both the music and costumes are billed as a mixture of old vaudeville and contemporary, but everything blends into something very 1970s, with pastel and black high-waisted dancewear for the tap number, and glow-in-the-dark outfits for a routine that brought “Mummenschanz” to mind. The dance numbers are so empty of context that no matter how finely refined the movement from choreographer Jared Grimes, they lack expressive purpose.
Almost as an afterthought, there are some gorgeous acrobatics. Tuan Le impressively juggles up to eight hats; Vanessa Alvarez twirls cloth on both hands and legs while standing on her head; audience favorite Dima Shine spins himself all over a lamp post, seemingly defying gravity.
Those sequences are terrific, as usual, and, also as usual, sort of vaudevillian in the uniqueness and discreteness of their performances. But then, Cirque du Soleil has always possessed qualities of vaudeville — finding ways to connect variety acts with beautiful, ethereal imagery and music. Here, the acts feel disconnected and extraneous.
The audience can be forgiven for wondering the same thing Schmelky bellows as his act disintegrates into yet-another frenetic but unfunny dollop of shtick: “What happened to the magic?”