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The Beast in the Jungle

Theatre Review by David Hurst - May 23, 2018

Irina Dvorovenko and Tony Yazbeck
Photo by Carol Rosegg

As she did with John Weidman in Contact at Lincoln Center in 2000, director and choreographer Susan Stroman is breaking the musical theatre form again with The Beast in the Jungle at The Vineyard, though any other comparisons, I'm sorry to say, end there. Inspired by the 1903 novella of the same name by Henry James, widely considered one of the greatest narratives ever written, Stroman's new show, labeled "A Dance Play," finds her collaborating again with two of the three men who helped launch her career: composer John Kander and book writer David Thompson. Together, along with the late, great lyricist Fred Ebb, this quartet of artists created And the World Goes Round in 1994, Steel Pier in 1997 and, most recently, the critically heralded The Scottsboro Boys in 2010. (Thompson also collaborated with Stroman on Harry Connick's ill-fated Thou Shall Not in 2001, but we'll let that sit on the back-burner for the time being.)

Boasting a superb cast and sumptuous production values for an off-Broadway non-profit, including an excellent 9-piece orchestra led by Greg Jarrett and terrific lighting by Ben Stanton, there's a lot for fans to enjoy in The Beast in the Jungle. Kander's waltz-inspired score is lush and beautiful with many haunting tunes, beautifully arranged by Sam Davis and orchestrated by Davis and Greg Anthony Rassen. Unfortunately, since Beast isn't a musical no one sings a note despite the fact James' story would lend itself to song and the cast is led by three musical theatre veterans: the wonderful Peter Friedman (Ragtime), the divine Irina Dvorovenko (Encores! Grand Hotel) and the amazing Tony Yazbeck (On the Town). Instead of Ebb's smart, trenchant lyrics we get a dense book courtesy of Thompson and a lot of dancing from Stroman. Much of the choreography is lovely and artful, but I'm not convinced it advances the plot with the clarity and vigor it needs despite how well it's executed. As for Thompson's play, he's taken such liberties with Henry James' story that, if you've read the novella, you'll have a hard time reconciling what he's done to it.

To give you a quick summary of James' plot: In Victorian London, John Marcher is reacquainted with May Bartram who he met ten years previously in Italy. In their first meeting Marcher revealed to May his great secret, which was that he lived in fear that his life would defined by some as yet unknown, exalted experience. May remembers Marcher's secret but spends her days waiting to see if he will return her love. But Marcher believes he can't marry because, if he does, the exalted experience won't happen to him and their relationship remains chaste and unconsummated. Marcher takes May to dinner and to the theatre, but he doesn't allow himself to develop feeling for her. At the end of the story, when May dies, he realizes the unknown event—the exalted experience—which has defined his life is that he has wasted his life unable to accept love or give love in return. Gorgeously written in third person narrative, James' story explores the worth and meaning of a human life.

Peter Friedman and Tony Yazbeck
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Thompson and Stroman use a framing device for their contemporary realization of the story. Peter Friedman is an elder John Marcher while Tony Yazbeck portrays his nephew whose girlfriend has recently sent him packing, as well as his younger self in flashbacks. Thompson has concocted a backstory for Marcher that includes maternal abandonment, paternal suicide and a sister who left the orphanage to which the siblings were consigned in order to save herself. (As Birdie Coogan says in All About Eve, "What a story. Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end . . .") As his memory unspools, we see Marcher meet May Bertram, played with sultry panache by Irina Dvorovenko, in Naples, Italy while working his way across Europe looking for women to bed. The great exalted experience for Marcher, in Thompson's retelling, is of the sexual conquest variety. (Not exactly in keeping with the #MeToo Movement, but whatever.)

After meeting at a house party which they've both crashed, they admire a small, painted study of Henri Matisse's Dance I (you can see Stroman's mind working when the painting is introduced), John and May spend a passionate afternoon together in Pompeii that ends with him having a panic attack whereupon he leaves without saying goodbye. Twenty years later, John, now an art dealer, meets May again at a posh estate in The Cotswold's. A successful, professional photographer now, she's married to John's client, played with sharp acuity by Teagle F. Bougere, a wealthy industrialist who shoots wild boar on his property as a way of marking his marital turf. Somehow John finds the study of Dance I for his client to give to May, but she really knows it's a gift from him. They proclaim their undying love for each other and make plans to run off into the night, only for John to have another panic attack and an aborted suicide attempt before he runs back to London.

Back in London, Marcher continues telling his nephew his story with the study of Dance I conspicuously present. It seems May gave it to him when she died. We then see their last meeting, ten years after The Cotswold's debacle, when John goes to a retrospective show of May's work at which pictures of him from their first two meetings are prominently on display. John's nephew confronts him with the obvious, that he's wasted his life, and returns to make amends to his girlfriend. John then tears apart his apartment in an emotional rage.

Throughout The Beast in the Jungle, Stroman weaves in dances which reflect what's happening with John and his transient meetings with May. To that end, she also employs six lovely female dancers: Maira Barriga, Elizabeth Dugas, Leah Hofmann, Naomi Kakuk, Brittany Marcin Maschmeyer and Erin N. Moore, who predominantly function as the dancers in the painted study by Matisse which is a through-line in John and May's story. They're work is distinguished, even if they're a bit crowded on The Vineyard's tiny stage. As always, Yazbeck's dancing is muscular and thrilling, drawing comparisons to Gene Kelly. As his partner, Dvorovenko, who was a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre from 2000-2014, moves with exquisite grace and is also a terrific actress. For his part, Friedman acquits himself well and is never less than credible as an emotionally barren man searching for some kind of redemption as his world closes in.

But despite its strengths, I suspect The Beast in the Jungle will have limited appeal because of its unusual hybrid nature. It's not a dance piece like Contact and it's not a musical like The Scottsboro Boys. It's essentially a play with a multitude of dances inserted and interspersed throughout the dramatic action. The music is beautiful, but nobody sings. But you have to give credit to Stroman, Kander and Thompson for attempting something new and daring. It's what off-Broadway and artistic expression is all about.

The Beast in the Jungle
Through June 17
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street between Union Square East and Irving Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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