'The Beast in the Jungle': Theater Review

The Beast in the Jungle Production Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Carol Rosegg
Doesn't make much of a roar.

Director-choreographer Susan Stroman, composer John Kander and writer David Thompson, who previously teamed on 'The Scottsboro Boys,' reunite for this "dance play" inspired by the Henry James novella.

Anyone who's read Henry James knows that his brilliance manifests itself in language. Yes, there have been films, plays and operas made from the writer's works, but none of them fully capture the expressiveness of his torrents of words. So it's not surprising that The Beast in the Jungle, a new "dance play" loosely adapted from his 1903 novella, feels lost in translation.

A tremendous pedigree of talent is involved in this work receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. The director-chorographer is Susan Stroman, who mined similar territory in her Tony Award-winning dance musical Contact; the score is composed by the legendary John Kander, whose collaborations with Fred Ebb include Cabaret and Chicago; and the book is written by David Thompson, who previously worked with Stroman and Kander on the acclaimed musical The Scottsboro Boys.

The cast is similarly first-rate, with the leading roles played by Peter Friedman, a veteran of dozens of Broadway and off-Broadway shows; Tony Yazbeck, who wowed audiences with his starring turn in the last Broadway revival of On the Town and more recently in Prince of Broadway; and Irina Dvorovenko, a former principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre who has delivered impressive leading performances in the Encores! productions of On Your Toes and Grand Hotel.

But the bounty of talent counts for little in a tedious, inert piece that awkwardly shoehorns numerous dance interludes into a thin storyline. The plot revolves around John Marcher (Friedman), an art dealer who's been far more successful in business than love. When his nephew (Yazbeck) drops by his apartment just after having been dumped by his commitment-demanding girlfriend, Marcher takes the opportunity to counsel the young man not to let her get away and thereby make the same mistake he did.

The story then flashes back to 50 years earlier, when the young Marcher (now played by Yazbeck) is spending time in Naples, Italy, cutting a wide swath through the many young lovelies with whom he comes into contact. But he finds himself hopelessly smitten by the beautiful May (Dvorovenko), who makes her attraction to him known even as she wittily deflates his romantic aspirations. The two have a lovely day together on a beach in Pompeii, but Marcher flees rather than pursue the relationship. He blames his actions on an entity he's dubbed "The Beast," one that has cursed him and prevents him from experiencing love and happiness.

Twenty years later, Marcher has become prosperous in business; he accepts an invitation from a rich client (Teagle F. Bougere, excellent) to spend a weekend at his summer home in the Cotswolds. The client's wife turns out to be none other than May, and the romantic feelings between her and Marcher soon rise to the surface as her husband grows more suspicious. She and Marcher make passionate love one night and resolve to run away together, but once again he lets his fears get the better of him. The two lovers have yet another reunion in the present day, with different but similarly fateful results.

The dialogue is sparse and the dance sequences plentiful, but Stroman's mostly ballet-inspired choreography quickly begins to feel repetitive. There are a few distinctive segments, such as "Picnic Waltz," amusingly depicting the erotic tensions between Marcher and May under her husband's nose, and "Marcher and the Beast," in which the central character's inner turmoil is fully manifested in physical terms.

But those are the exceptions rather than the rule and, despite the prodigious dancing talents of Yazbeck, Dvorovenko and an ensemble of six statuesque women who play small supporting roles, the overall effect is underwhelming, feeling constrained on the small stage. The same can be said of Kander's waltz-flavored score, which proves typically melodic but unmemorable.

Michael Curry's simple but striking scenic design is first-rate, making imaginative use of puppetry and Matisse-inspired visuals (a study of his painting "The Dancer" figures prominently in the storyline); Ben Stanton's piercing lighting design significantly adds to the impact.

For all the strenuous effort exerted, The Beast in the Jungle ultimately feels too simplistic to fully put across James' complex psychological themes. The show emerges as one of those rare evenings in the theater that you desperately wish had been more talky.

Venue: Vineyard Theatre, New York
Cast: Maira Barriga, Teagle F. Bougere, Elizabeth Dugas, Irina Dvorovenko, Sara Esty, Peter Friedman, Leah Hofmann, Naomi Kakuk, Brittany Marcin Maschmeyer, Erin N. Moore, Clifton Samuels, Tony Yazbeck
Director-choreographer: Susan Stroman
Music: John Kander
Book: David Thompson
Set & costume designer: Michael Curry
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Orchestrations: Greg Anthony Rassen, Sam Davis
Presented by The Vineyard Theatre