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The Beast In The Jungle

I shouldn't have been surprised — I used to think I could outrun it. But whenever I felt something, here -- (motioning to his heart) — it would appear. — John Marcher on the Beast of impending disaster that haunts him, preventing him from giving himself to the joy of a fulfilled love.
Irina Dvorovenko Tony Yazbeck (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
This theater season has seen two 80-plus actresses portraying 90-plus women about to succumb to the Grim Reaper. (Three Tall Women & Peace For Mary Frances ) While it's nice to see actresses like Glenda Jackson and Lois Smith still doing fine work, the 90-plus characters they get to play are inevitably done in before play's end. What a joy then, to report that in real life the 91-year-old John Kander is still doing what he's always done: composing lovely, original scores.

Kander's latest score is for an enchanting new dance musical, named The Beast In the Jungle, which is also the title of the famous 1903 Henry James novella that serves as the template for David Thompson's book. The sad-glad romantic mood of the scintillating waltz time melodies enables director-choreographer Susan Stroman to let her dazzling dances function as songs do in more traditional musicals. The sublime cast of dancers headed by two stars from Broadway and the classical Ballet World— Tony Yazbeck and Irina Dvorovenko— beautifully evoke the glad, sad and and scary elements of this half a century spanning love story.

The dancing and the simple but elegant and full of surprises stage craft by Stroman and her designers deflect any sense of monotony in the persistent 3/4 beat of the music.(The evocative lighting is by Ben Stanton, the costumes and sets are by Curry).

Mr. Thompson's book follows the James novel, but very loosely. It changes the time frame, adds characters and alters the details to accommodate the gorgeous dancing that's the heart and soul of this unique blend of ballet and book musical.

The main characters are still John Marcher, a man with sense of foreboding that some sort of family curse has doomed him to experience something horrible. That unstoppable horror is like the symbolic beast that makes him unable to commit himself to love, even that of the lovely and ready to love him May Bertram. Though he comes close to ignoring that foreboding and give a fulfilled life with May a chance, the beast wins out. True to any star-crossed love story, by the time he recognizes his fear as the real beast in the jungle of his life, it is of course too late.

James structured his novella to tell his beast-haunted protagonist's story in the third person and to keep May a constant presence in Marcher's life, but only as a sympathetic friend. Mr. Thompson has changed this setup, by beginning and ending the story in Marcher's present day New York apartment, and limiting the unconsummated love affair to just a few meetings. The first takes us back to Naples, Italy in 1968; the second, and most critical one, fast forwards to England in 1988; and the poignant final one takes us back to Marcher after his last battle with "the beast."

To structure James's story as a memory play Thompson's book calls for a prelude to introduce two actors. One as the non-dancing older Marcher. The second is an actor-dancer playing a double role: the first as Marcher's nephew whose own fraught romance sets his uncle's memories in motion which in turn results in the nephew morphing into the the uncle's younger persona . This may sound like a too schematic device, and too much diddling with what many Henry James fans and scholars regard as a masterpiece.

Actually, it works quite well. Unlike James's rather dry and boring Marcher, Thompson's man, while still eccentric and with a rather convoluted back story, is more interesting and debonair. Even though he's unable to shake off the fear of an eerie, uncontrollable "beast" ready to pounce, he has managed a working life as a successful art dealer. This older Marcher doesn't just bookend the the flashbacks but is integrated into all the dance dominated scenes — a good thing since the older Marcher is played by Peter Friedman, a master of any role calling for a solid interpreter.

James's hint that May too had a life beyond that sexless friendship is here realized more fully and introduces another new to the play, non-dancing character—, a wealthy husband (a brief but astute performance by Teagle F. Bougere). As Marcher observes "He didn't live in fear of his beasts. He killed them."

Clearly these non-dancing, non-singing characters involve more dialogue than Stroman's 1999 dance play Contact, an original concept by her and John Weidman. The use of recorded music as is usual in the ballet world, didn't keep Contact from being a hit with theater audiences. However, the Vineyard has gone all out to make The Beast in the Jungle a dance play that not only crisscrosses across countries, but the worlds of ballet, contemporary dance and musicals with songs to carry the story forward. And so Kander's lovely score gets the full instrumental treatment by a terrific 10-member orchestra playing 16 instruments— the piano, horn and string players in the balcony at one side of the theater and the percussionist in the one on the other side.

Making Marcher an art dealer is especially effective in reconnecting him with the now married May. The famous Matisse painting of a group of dancers is beautifully animated and echoed by the play's ensemble of women in three show-stopping waltzes. The wonderful sexual chemistry between Tony Yazbeck and Irina Dvorovenko is especially sizzling during Ms. Stroman's witty "Picnic Waltz." These are just some of the highlights of Stroman's choreographic wizardry. Her clever stage tricks include having Dvorovenko dive into a sea created with rippling blue sheets.

Call it what you will— a story ballet, a dance play, or dance-driven book musical— it works, though it would be even better with a ten-minute trim. Still, I'm probably being cranky to mention this, given the nonstop visual feast dished up. Even if The Beast in the Jungle ends up having a second life uptown, don't miss this chance to see Yazbeck and Dvorenko up close in an intimate space like the Vineyard.

If you'd like to read or re-read the Henry James novella, it's still in print, and available free for e-reading at both Amazon and Project Gutenberg. Now there's the sort of long life theater produces dream about.

Prelude 2018-John Marcher's New York Apartment
1968: Naples, Italy
Palazzo Waltz
Matisse I
Waltz Melancolique
Punta del Capo

1988:The Cotswolds, England
The Cotswolds Waltz
Picnic Waltz
Matisse II
Library Waltz
Marcher and the Beast

2018 John Marchers Apartment, New York
Manhattan Waltz
Maisse III
Grand Waltz Romanique

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The Beast In The Jungle
Music By John Kander
Book By David Thompson, based on Henry James novella
Direction & choreography By Susan Stroman
Cast: Teagle F. Bougere (Husband/Stranger), former American Ballet principal dancer Irina Dvorovenko (May Bertram), Peter Friedman (John Marcher), Tony Yazbeck (Nephew/Young Mrcher),Maira Barriga, Elizabeth Dugas, Leah Hofmann, Naomi Kakuk, Brittany Marcin Maschmeyer, Erin N.f Moore (The Women
Scenic and costume design by Michael Curry
Lighting design by Ben Stanton
Sound design by Peter Hylenski
Music supervision by David Loud
Stage manager: Johnny Milani
Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission
. Vineyard Theater 108 E. 15 St.
From 5/04/18; opening 5/23/18. closing 6/24/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/21/18 press preview

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