Longoria and Ashford Slip Out of Banana Shpeel, the Victims of Rewrites

By Kenneth Jones
23 Oct 2009

Banana Shpeel stars Michael Longoria and Annaleigh Ashford
Banana Shpeel stars Michael Longoria and Annaleigh Ashford
Photo by Avi Gerver

A month before the Nov. 19 Chicago world premiere of Cirque du Soleil's Banana Shpeel — and after very public press events featuring its Broadway leads, Michael Longoria and Annaleigh Ashford — rewrites for the project have slashed the two performers out of the show.

The creative team decided that they needed to shift the creative direction of the show, and as part of that, the roles played Longoria (of Jersey Boys) and Ashford (of Wicked) were written out.

The theatrical vaudeville show written and directed by David Shiner (Fool Moon) will play Chicago in fall 2009 and New York City in early 2010.

As previously reported, the new creation by Cirque du Soleil and MSG Entertainment was to feature Longoria (a Frankie Valli in the Broadway production of Jersey Boys) as Emmett, an innocent and romantic young actor, and Annaleigh Ashford (a Glinda in Wicked on Broadway and in Chicago) as his love interest Katie. In an ironic twist, their characters were to be abused by "a cruel and irritable theatre producer."

A spokesperson for Cirque told the Chicago Tribune that the show is being refocused to have less story and fewer characters.

Banana Shpeel will premiere at the Chicago Theatre Nov. 19, 2009-Jan. 3, 2010, and then move to the Beacon Theatre in New York City for a run Feb. 4-April 30, 2010.

The company, at last report, includes an international crew of comedic actors, including Claudio Carneiro (Brazil), Daniel Passer (U.S.), Patrick de Valette (France), Gordon White (Canada), and Wayne Wilson (U.S.).

Global talents showcased in Banana Shpeel include Russian hand balancer Dmitry Bulkin, Vietnamese juggler Tuan Le, Spanish foot juggler Vanessa Alvarez, and the American sister-brother tap dance duo, Joseph and Josette Wiggan.

Completing the cast are singer-actor-dancers Robyn Baltzer, Alex Ellis, Adrienne Jean Fisher, DeWitt Fleming Jr., Luke Hawkins, Kathleen Hennessey, Adrienne Reid, Anthony J. Russo, Melissa Schott and Steven T. Williams.

Under the direction of band leader Robert Cookman, the Banana Shpeel original score is performed live on stage by Roland Barber (trombone), Bobby Brennan (bass), James Campagnola (multi-instrumental), Iohann Laliberté (drums), Jean-François Ouellet (saxophone), Peter Sachon (cello) and Scott Steen (trumpet).

Here's how the show was billed: "Banana Shpeel is a roller-coaster mix of styles that blends comedy with tap, hip hop, eccentric dance and slapstick, all linked by a narrative that ignites a succession of wacky adventures. This is not circus, or a musical or a variety show, or even vaudeville. …Propelled by crazy humor and intense choreography, Banana Shpeel plunges us into the world of Schmelky, who dangles fame and fortune in front of Emmett, who has come to audition for him. Emmett soon finds himself trapped in a flamboyant, anarchic world where Schmelky sows terror and reigns supreme. Emmett falls in love with the beautiful Katie and meets a bunch of absurd characters, including the strange Banana Man. But who is this mysterious Banana Man and how can Emmett escape the clutches of Schmelky and his henchmen?"

The Banana Shpeel creative team includes artistic guides Guy Laliberté (Cirque du Soleil founder) and Gilles Ste-Croix; writer and director David Shiner; director of creation Serge Roy; composer and musical director Jean-François Côté; comic act designer Stefan Haves; choreographer Jared Grimes; costume designer Dominique Lemieux; set designer and props co-designer Patricia Ruel; props co-designer Jasmine Catudal; lighting designer Bruno Rafie; sound designer Harvey Robitaille; and make-up designer Eleni Uranis.

To purchase tickets, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com or www.beacontheatre.com or www.thechicagotheatre.com.