Banana Shpeel Credit: Kristie Kahns

Try to think back to when Cirque du Soleil was new, if you can. Coming out of the 70s busking scene with its hippie values—itineracy, poverty, tribalism, artisanship, engagement, beauty, a healthy dose of Luddism—founder Guy Laliberté had created an outfit that looked like part of the general renaissance of small circuses, offering an alternative to the industrial spectacles epitomized by Ringling. His troupe played in a tent. There were no animals, no specialty acts to be pumped out one after another, and no stars as such—just an ensemble of marvelous artists whose skills served a larger narrative. The sight of fantastically costumed acrobats and clowns playing out a dream story in a dreamscape to the dreamy sound of someone singing lyrics specifically designed to be incomprehensible suggested another hippie value: hallucination.

Of course, the notion that any of this represented authentic counterculturalism was also a hallucination, and it’s well past time to be lamenting the co-optation of Cirque du Soleil—assuming there ever was such a time. With seven shows in Vegas, one at Disney World, and others circling the planet on perpetual tour, like so many cable satellites, Laliberté’s company is industrial on a level that couldn’t have been imagined by the Ringling brothers, Barnum, and Bailey all put together.

Yet even as nostalgists like me have stood back and sighed, the circuses Cirque has brought to Chicago have retained an astonish-me sense of wonder. They’ve been gorgeous, thoughtful, atmospheric, inventive, expert, and, yes, poetic in their Quebecois fashion.

The new Banana Shpeel, though, isn’t in anything approaching the same league. Granted, it’s supposed to be a departure. According to the PR, writer-director David Shiner was charged with developing a show that would marry the Cirque sensibility to vaudeville—a tough job, given that the Cirque sensibility has always been about transcending vaudeville’s variety-show conventions, in which a comic is followed by a dance team followed by a talking dog. Granted also, the creative process has apparently been rocky. The initial stars of the venture—Annaleigh Ashford, who’s played Glinda in Wicked, and Michael Longoria of Jersey Boys fame—were dropped in late October.

But for all those factors have clearly contributed to the failure of Banana Shpeel, they’re just symptoms. What’s essentially wrong here is that Banana Shpeel has no reason to exist other than to fill a market niche. Slated to go to Broadway next February, thereby carrying Cirque du Soleil to a new demographic and a new proscenium-based format, it’s a show slapped together for no discernible reason other than to fit a venue—a creative venture based on a business decision, consummately commercial.

And you can feel the creatives’ desperation. Shiner attempts to tie a bunch of disparate acts together with a pseudo-narrative involving a big, loud, cigar-chomping impresario called Schmelky and his ostensibly clownish assistants Wayne and Daniel. Schmelky is conducting auditions for his next big show and Wayne and Daniel are supposed to keep order. Naturally, all hell breaks loose. Fine so far.

Trouble is, between Wayne and Daniel there’s no top or second banana, no high or low status, no fat or thin, sweet or sour. You could switch their lines and actions and they’d come out exactly the same. All they do is fight with each other and abuse others when they get the chance. After a while, they seem positively vicious, though they’re supposed to be endearing. They have no organic relationship. The sloppiness of it, the sense of desperation, is palpable. Same for Schmelky, whose personality is all in his cigar. And we have to spend most of the evening with them.

The lack of a believable dynamic among the clowns infects everything they’re in. Conversely, all the pleasure in the show is where they aren’t. The specialty acts can be exquisite. Some members of the dance corps put across so much personality that I began to look for them in the group numbers. Vanessa Alvarez makes herself oddly seductive by spinning what look like oversize placemats on her feet and hands. Jeff Retzlanoff and Kelsey Wiens have a stunning, vertical pas de deux in which she balances on his head and hands. And when handsome, buff young Dima Shine came to the apron of the stage to take his bow after a gravity-defying hand-balancing act, the lady next to me said, sotto voce, “Come closer.” If only the rest of the show could compel that sort of response.