Following their previous collaboration on the 2010 musical The Scottsboro Boys, director-choreographer Susan Stroman and composer John Kander have returned to the Vineyard Theatre for The Beast in the Jungle, a haunting memory play warning that the biggest danger in life is the road not taken.
Based on Henry James’s 1903 novella by the same name, The Beast in the Jungle updates its setting to present-day New York, where lonely bachelor John Marcher (Peter Friedman) is recounting his history of lost love to his nephew (Tony Yazbeck, who also portrays Marcher’s younger self). The show flashes back to two different points in Marcher’s past when the American playboy went abroad and came in contact with the love of his life, European photographer May Bertram (Irina Dvorovenko)—only to ultimately run away rather than commit. Paralyzed by an unflinching belief in a “beast” destined to destroy him, Marcher repeatedly lets his chances for a happy ending with Bertram pass him by, his fear destining him to a life alone without true romantic love.
Marcher describes himself as “waltzing” through life, and appropriately, the “dance play” is told through a blend of dance, dialogue and music, with Kander’s score set entirely in three-quarter time. David Thompson’s dialogue is serviceable in telling the story, though it often over-explains the characters’ emotions and can verge on triteness—along with the cringeworthy couplets that dominate scenes in which Marcher woos other women, such as “Meet me at the Gabinetto Segreto”/ “I won’t forget-oh.” Actor Teagle F. Bougere, however, does make the best of the play’s dialogue in his non-dancing role as Bertram’s eventual husband, with a comedic affability that thinly disguises his hot-tempered aggression.
Primarily, though, it’s the moments where the words drop away and the characters dance that bring this production to life, depicting the heightened emotions of Marcher’s charged memories through romantic pas de deux and sweeping extensions. A female ensemble dances and forms terpsichorean tableaux throughout the piece, and their background movements, along with the production’s extensive use of flowing silks, create a whirling, dreamlike mood that elevates the otherwise minimalistic production.
Stroman, whose choreographic background includes both balletic works and showbiz glitz, effectively combines her talents here, mixing traditional ballet with soft shoe and more rhythmic touches that subtly integrate her tap background. Former American Ballet Theatre principal Dvorovenko captures an alluring blend of intelligence and coyness in both her precise classical ballet variations and spoken interactions with Marcher, though dancing is clearly her forte. Her European elegance is contrasted well by Yazbeck, whose solid, masculine American style evokes a modern-day Gene Kelly. Rather than impose classical ballet on him, Stroman instead keeps Yazbeck in his wheelhouse, with strong, assured jazz choreography that oscillates between sharp bursts of movement and softer, more lyrical moments.
Yet for as much as the production employs dance as a storytelling tool, the movement could still go further. Stroman’s choreography often feels scaled back in its ambition, and the production could lean more heavily into moments where dance is used to illustrate the characters’ inner psyches, rather than rely on extensive dialogue and pantomime. Though he’s onstage for much of the show, Yazbeck’s talents as a dancer are also curiously underused. The movement in his all-too-rare solos often feels straightforward and restrained, and while that could betray the character’s own talent for holding himself back, it should be these psychological moments where Yazbeck—both as Marcher and as a dancer—is allowed to finally break free.
Though a far cry from the brassy vamps for which the Chicago and Cabaret composer is best known, Kander’s atmospheric, lilting score serves the choreography well. The waltzing music ties the three periods of Marcher’s life together through its recurring themes and infuses emotion in a fitting yet understated way.
With only minimal set pieces (by Michael Curry) to rely on, Ben Stanton’s lighting design is the standout element of the production’s design, blending pitch-blackness and moody shades of light to evoke the dark caverns of Marcher’s memory and his sense of impending doom. As with the dancing, these moments in which the fantastical realm of Marcher’s mind overtakes the real world’s mundanity are where this cerebral waltz comes alive, overcoming the production’s shortcomings to combat its own theatrical “beasts.”
The Beast in the Jungle plays through June 24 at the Vineyard Theatre (108 East 15th Street). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinee performances are at 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For more information and tickets, call the box office at (212) 353-0303 or visit vineyardtheatre.org.