Monday, September 20, 2010

20 Sep'10

Rating: 3 out of 5

More than two decades after successfully reinventing the circus, the folks at Cirque du Soleil have apparently been overcome once again with an uncontrollable desire to take something old and magically make it new again. Or at least, make the attempt.

In this case, the focus of their reawakened creative juices is not on the circus ring but the dress circle as they move up entertainment's evolutionary ladder from the big top to the theatrical stage -- or more specifically, the vaudeville stage. But despite their best efforts, first in New York and then in Chicago, it doesn't seem that they've managed to do for the borscht belt what they did for the big top, at least judging by the production of BANANA SHPEEL that pulled into the Canon Theatre Sunday for a Toronto run. Put succinctly, BANANA SHPEEL doesn't so much serve to usher in a thrilling vaudeville renaissance as introduce us to a heightened state of ambivalence with a show that walks a new kind of tightrope, managing in the end to be neither bad enough to hate nor good enough to love.

That it is not traditional Cirque fare is to be expected, even celebrated -- and indeed, that isn't the problem, for if anything there are far too many of the big, bold Cirque acts on offer, re-thought and reconfigured for the proscenium stage. In fact, the impressive roster of contortionists, jugglers, spinners and gymnasts are all certifiably Cirque, even though their skills seem to be have been reined in to accommodate the diminished height and depth of the conventional stage.

And then of course, there are the clowns -- a slate of seven of 'em, in fact, all of them seemingly convinced their form of comedy is interchangeable with the stand-up skills of great comedians who once spent years honing their skills on the vaudeville circuit. And indeed, they just might be, for Danny Rutigliano, Claudio Careiro, Patrick de Valette, Shereen Hickman, Daniel Passer, Gordon White and Wayne Wilson are all hugely talented.

But under the direction of writer David Shiner, they get precious little chance to show it -- at least to their advantage. Instead, they are charged with carrying the full weight of a second-rate narrative that Shiner has imposed as seeming justification for forsaking the big top for the theatrical big-time. And frankly, that's where things start to fall apart; for in attempting to hitch a ride on vaudeville's rather shabby coattails, the folks at Cirque seem to have overlooked the audience on whose collective imaginations Cirque's success has been built.

Over the years, Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix have consistently refused to simply tell a story, instead setting scenes that force every member of their audience to impose his or her own narrative -- a brilliant way to draw an audience into a show. Now, with a narrative served up on a platter -- Shiner takes the whole premise of the Ed Sullivan Show and almost succeeds in converting it into the Dead Sullivan Show as a Schmelky Spectacular, overseen by impresario Marty Schmelky, played by Rutigliano -- it all just seems a little tedious, as he tries to pass an amuse-bouche off as a main course.

In the end, one has to be grateful for the artistry of choreographer Jared Grimes, whose tap numbers fairly sparkle, and designers Patricia Ruel and Bruno Rafie, whose respective sets and lighting are often delightfully breathtaking. But ultimately, though no one is killed in this collision between Cirque and vaudeville, no one really walks away uninjured either.

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