Reaction occurs in three distinct stages to “The Beast in the Jungle,” an unusual new show at Vineyard Theater, inspired by a novella by Henry James, with music composed by John Kander. The production is directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, and stars Tony Yazbeck and newcomer Irina Dvorovenko, engaging in a frustrated dance of love over 50 years.
The first reaction is excitement:
John Kander! (Chicago, Cabaret)
Tony Yazbeck! (On The Town)
Susan Stroman! (The Producers)
The second reaction is surprise, bafflement, disbelief:
A musical by John Kander that contains no songs?
A book by David Thompson that injects Henry James with the language of pulp romance? (“She was joy itself! I had never felt this way about a woman.”)
A show billed as a “dance play” that alternates scenes of spoken dialogue with ballets?
But theatergoer reaction can work its way to a third stage, acceptance, for those willing to consider “The Beast in The Jungle” as an experiment in hybrid form, appreciating the creative effort as a whole, while overlooking the awkward fit and occasional whiff of the ludicrous. There is enough to enjoy that indisputably works, especially Kander’s lively instrumental waltz music, and the splendid dancing by Yazbeck and Dvorovenko, a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Yazbeck is spectacular as usual. Dvorovenko is ideal in the role: Graceful and gorgeous and spirited, it is easy to see why Marcher would fall in love with her.
In 2018, John Marcher (Peter Friedman), a former ladies man, an art dealer, an old man, sits in his apartment telling his nephew (Tony Yazbeck) about the woman with whom he fell in love, though he only met her three times. Yazbeck then turns into Young Marcher, and we see him meeting May Bertram (Dvorovenko) in Naples in 1968, in The Cotswolds in England in 1988, and (back as Friedman) in New York in 2018. Each time, the love is mutual and palpable, but something prevents Marcher from connecting. As May says to him: “So handsome. So lonely. But so afraid to love.”
It is his demons who stop him – the beast of the title. We eventually learn what that metaphor represents — why Marcher views himself as incapable of love. But in this production the beast is represented literally, by puppetry, props and the ensemble dancers.
It is part of a stage design that holds great visual appeal throughout. A Matisse painting of dancers figures in the plot, and comes to life on stage. Young Marcher takes off his shirt at the beach, and later sits naked in a tub smoking a cigar, imagining May, as she dances around him.
The cast of ten includes two men who do nothing but act (Friedman as old Marcher, Teagle F. Bougere as May’s rich husband in 1988), and six women who do nothing but dance. At several points, they play the women who eagerly come on to the young Marcher, in momentary lulls during their dancing:
Meet me behind the cloisters
I’ll bring the oysters
Meet me at the Gabinetto Segreto.
I won’t forget-oh!
These couplets are spoken, although they certainly would be easier to accept if they were lyrics. But there are no lyrics in “The Beast in the Jungle.” There is only lyricism; and that, in this production anyway, will have to be enough.
The Beast in the Jungle
Music by John Kander, book by David Thompson. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman.
Scenic and costume design by Michael Curry, lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Peter Hylenski, wig design by David Bova, music arrangements by Sam Davis, orchestrations by Greg Anthony Rassen and Sam Davis, music supervision by David Loud
Cast: Teagle F. Bougere, Irina Dvorovenko, Peter Friedman and Tony Yazbeck. Maira Barrig, Elizabeth Dugas, Leah Hofmann, Naomi Kakuk, Brittany Marcin Maschmeyer, Erin N. Moore
Tickets: $85 to $100
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission
The Beast in the Jungle is scheduled to run through June 16, 2018