Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Dark Side of the Moon - Cirque du Soleil's Banana Shpeel and The Addams Family - Theatre Reviews

Cirque du Soleil's Banana Shpeel - Beacon Theater - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written and Directed by David Shiner, Choreographed by Jared Grimes

The Addams Family - Lunt-Fontanne Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa, Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice based on the characters by Charles Addams, Directed and Designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo

I really wanted to love both of these shows, despite, or maybe because of the poor buzz. I really did. There are still enough things within The Addams Family and Cirque du Soleil's Banana Shpeel that don't make it a total waste (mostly things called Nathan Lane and a hot Russian Pole Dancer named Dmitry Bulkin but more on him later) but both shows really don't work as a whole. On top of that, considering both shows are being targeted as family shows, I found both shows to be on the wrong side of the tasteful side, with some adult humour and innuendo that seemed inappropriate for a younger audience. On the other hand, Lane is a total hoot and Russian Hand Balancer Bulkin really needs to be seen to be believed.

Cirque du Soleil may have overextended it itself this year with three brand new shows (Viva Elvis in Vegas, a new touring show TOTEM in Montreal) and Banana Shpeel is the Montreal Circus company's attempt at a permanent show for New York City in a traditional proscenium stage. So the idea is to present a Vaudeville style show infused with Cirque's amazing presentation and artistry, but the results prove that Vaudeville died for a reason, and Cirque should stick to its strengths.

Directed by clown expert David Shiner (Fool Moon), Banana Shpeel tries to incorporate some of New York's Broadway into the show, designing it around a cranky clown Shmelky (Danny Rutigliano),his assistant Margaret (Shereen Hickman), and his two proteges clowns/assistants Daniel (Daniel Passer) and Wayne (the truly funny Wayne Wilson) as they try to find new and amazing acts in between the "most amazing acts" he already has. So while the show still builds around various circus acts (though to be honest, at 2.5 hours, 5 is not enough), Shiner fills the in-between with some wah wah clowning bits. So what used to be a 5 minute filler in a Cirque show, is now the whole show with some circus acts as filler.

Some of those circus acts are pretty cool and amazing, but still familiar. Especially Foot Juggler Vanessa Alvarez (above), a similar but solo act of a duo version I just saw in TOTEM.

Juggler Tuan Le (above) is pretty impressive, but again, a solo act is hard to fill the giant Beacon stage, even when the background is beautifully decorated in stunning set designs by Dominique Lemieux.

The look of the show doesn't disappoint, with some visually beautiful tableaus, but it only makes the simpler circus acts, impressive in technicality, look simple and plain in theatricality.

Then comes the exception, in a awe-inspiring solo Hand Balancing act by Dmitry Bulkin (above), who Margaret the clown later accurately dubs the "Hot Russian Pole Dancer", the show finally gets the lift it needs. Bulkin, who had up until that point, been a (literally) running joke as a whispy flaky mime clown running amuck, simply places his hands on the pole and proceeds to slowly walk in mid air with nary a tightening of his awe-inspiring muscles.

There's also a wonderfully romantic ode to love with Hand to Hand Duo act (Preston Jamieson and Kelsey Wiens) that is also breathtaking and gasp-inducing, and though there act is equal to the others in length, I could have watched this pair all night.

Sadly, we sit mostly watching Shiner try to tie the acts together with a cantankerous lead Schmelky who unleashes 3 more clowns accidentally as they "audition" to be in the show. Soon a puppeteer (Claudio Carneiro), the oldest mime in the world (Gordon Mime) and a "modern dancer"/flasher (Patrick de Valette) are running/ruining the show while Wayne (truly underused) and Daniel try to bring order to this messy show that gets messier as a strange vulgarity seeps through. Strangely, the flasher (yes, he really is a creepy flasher clown) somehow becomes the funniest of them all with de Valette's truly strange but funny body movements somehow being a highlight of it all.

And filling in the clowning moments are an array of tap dancers, both as a circus act (with duo Josette and Joseph Wiggan) and in large group ensemble number (choreographed by Jared Grimes). While tap dancing as a large ensemble is pretty neat to see, tap dancing with only 2 people can get tiresome fast.

I see what Cirque is trying to do, but a lot of the clowns' off-colour jokes, added with not just their inherent creepiness, but an added creepiness in their characterizations, darkens what should be a bright Cirque du Soleil show. An unlikable lead clown Schmelky is given far too much time while more likable clowns Margaret, Daniel and especially Wayne are relegated to second banana (wah wah!).

There's enough excellent moments to salvage the show, but Banana Shpeel still needs a good peeling and cutting to live up to our Cirque expectations. A few more circus acts and less of the clowns would speed up the show and make the whole thing edible, but at this point, it's the weakest Cirque show I've seen, and barely worthy of being in the spectacularly exquisite and recently renovated Beacon Theatre (a must see all on its own), but hopefully like other originally-troubled Cirque shows, they will continue chipping away at the show until it's truly ripe for presentation.

The Addams Family could have been a hauntingly smart and darkly humourous new musical based on Charles Addams' original droll cartoons. It could have been a visually innovative spectacular that set a simple bold look to a witty show on our favorite gruesome family. Instead, we have a new theme park ride set over 2.5 hours that have entrapped the wonderous talents of an impressive Broadway cast, left to their own avail in soulless show. When Charles Addams joked about the darkness in the Addams Family, losing any heart and soul isn't what he meant.

The music is serviceable but unmemorable, and the sets hint at something brilliant, but becomes more of a lumbering hinderance, much like the whole show itself. If anything, the curtain becomes somewhat of a show in itself, but if I have to say that the curtain was the best part of the show (and it really was one of the best parts), you really are in trouble.

So thank goodness at least that they have Nathan Lane, already perfectly cast as Gomez Addams. Lane may have some strange Latino accent (by way of former co-star Hank Azaria's Agador in Birdcage) that wavers in and out, but Lane is not a musical comedy legend for nothing. Lane lands jokes that aren't even jokes, and he makes sure the show keeps moving along if he has to maul it to death himself.

Every twitch, line spit, and eye arch manages to sell a laugh to the back of the theatre (where I was) and it was an honour to see a theatre legend like Lane do his shtick. He must really be a musical comedy legend if he can sell shtick like this.

In perfect visual casting, another Broadway legend Bebe Neuwirth (Chicago, Frasier) manages to look great as Morticia, but she's given so little to do except skid her way back and forth across the stage in her tight low cut dress, that Neuwirth becomes stiffer than the corpses beside her, to no fault of her own. Her ridiculous plotline, that she's worried about getting older and more irrelevant, betrays the exact order Charles Addams has set up.

The plot, a supposedly darker, yet comes off even brighter and campier version to La Cage Aux Folles, has Wednesday (Spring Awakening's Krysta Rodriguez) wanting to marry her normal boyfriend (Rock of Ages' Wesley Taylor).

This all becomes an excuse for the straight laced Beineke's (who? exactly) to enter the world of the Addams, and too much time is spent on the Beineke's and their own plots. Carolee Carmelo does a great over-the-top reaction as Alice Beineke while Terrence Mann (Beauty and the Beast) is relegated to looking stiff and perturbed at anyone and everything.

The super lovable, talented and funny side cast of Jackie Hoffman (Xanadu) as Grandma, Kevin Chamerlain (Seussical) as Uncle Fester (who sings a love song to the moon), and Adam Riegler (Cubby Bernstein) as Pugsley are given even less to do than Mann, and seem totally wasted here with off-coloured jokes that seem inappropriate especially considered how Disneyfied the show tries to be (and ironically, even The Lion King is less Disneyfied). Poor Zachary James is left lumbering around as Lurch with little to do but walk slowly around, though there's a nice payoff at the end for James.

For all it's efforts, The Addams Family musical is truly disappointing in it's mediocrity and unimaginative goals (though less offensive than the truly disappointing Shrek). Luckily it has a terrific cast (yes, wasted, but at least they are there making the most of it) with Nathan Lane carrying the show on his shoulder all the way to the bank.

Both The Addams Family and Banana Shpeel are far from perfect, and skew to the wrong side of being tasteful at times, but there's a solid base that with some truly major edits and reworking, both shows are still salvageable. In their current formats, the shows lack a truly magical spark to turn the entire production into something worthy, but in both shows, and extra * is added simply for some terrific talent (Lane, Bulkin, Wilson, Jamieson, Wiens) that manages to make both shows worth a look solely for them.

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