REVIEW: “The Beast in the Jungle”

REVIEW: “The Beast in the Jungle”

The partnership between director/choreographer Susan Stroman, composer John Kander, and librettist David Thompson began with a 1987 revamped revival of “Flora, the Red Menace”, then spawned “And the World Goes ‘Round” (1991), “Steel Pier” (1997), and “The Scottsboro Boys” (2010).  “The Beast in the Jungle”, their latest project, opened at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre on May 23rd, and marks their most ambitious collaboration yet.

Inspired by—but pointedly not an adaption of—Henry James’ eponymous 1903 novella, “The Beast in the Jungle” is set in New York in 2018 as the bitter and resigned bachelor art dealer John Marcher (Peter Friedman, “Ragtime”) painfully imparts to his nephew (Tony Yazbeck, “Prince of Broadway”, “On the Town”) the sorrow of the great love and regret of his life: his inchoate romance with the now-deceased May Bertram, Irina Dvorovenko (American Ballet Theatre, “Grand Hotel”), and the specter of a “beast” that haunted him, rendering him nihilistic and unfulfilled in his quest for “the great mystical fuck” (liberties have clearly been taken with James’ text).

Presented as a “dance play”, Mr. Yazbeck—effervescent and captivating as always—becomes a younger Marcher in two flashbacks, each featuring scenes of dialogue beside extended dance sequences set to an original score by Mr. Kander (“Cabaret”, “Chicago”) composed entirely in three-quarters time, and choreographed by Ms. Stroman (“The Producers”, “Contact”) with her characteristic wit and kineticism.  In a third sequence, set in the present, Mr. Friedman resumes the role of Marcher, aged, and no longer a dancer.

At an audience talkback after the performance I attended, an older gentleman shared his newfound revelation that dance is a language.  Yes, it is.  And Ms. Stroman’s movement seamlessly continues where Mr. Thompson’s words end.  Most exciting to observe, these dances—memories—are so tailored to Mr. Kander’s music and their orchestration that it is hard to know, as is often the case with music and lyrics, which came first; indeed, I learned afterward that they were developed in tandem. 

Marcher only meets May three times: amid the whimsy of a youthful trek to Naples, Italy in 1968; by chance on an art buying commission in the English countryside in 1988; and by design at a retrospective exhibit of her photography in New York, just prior to her recent death.  That first vignette finds Mr. Yazbeck goofy and boyish, sowing his wild oats; the second sees him in passionate anguish, unknowingly summoned to the countryside by May’s husband (Teagle F. Bougere, “Is God Is”), to provide her with a present: a study by Henri Matisse for his masterwork “The Dance”, a painting the young Marcher and May had enjoyed together in Naples.  The third, and final, vignette finds a tragically alone Marcher confronting his love one last time.

James’ short story is regarded as one of his finest works.  In it, Marcher never allows the love between him and May—or anyone—to bloom because of his ominous belief that his life will be upended by some unknown catastrophic event that will destroy him—the pain of which he wishes to spare his lover.  In the end, the tragedy of his life becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, his rejection of May that feared catastrophe of his fate.  James’ central notion is incisive and powerful, illuminating the human desire for a grand and meaningful existence, the very idea of which shapes and, in Marcher’s case, haunts that existence. 

In using James’ novella as source material for inspiration rather than straight adaption, this dance play both over-generalizes, removing the specificity of James’ idea, thereby reducing the story to one of mere unconsummated love and fear of commitment, without higher stakes, and over-specifies, providing additional background and color that clouds the story.  With the use of puppetry (scenic and costume design by Michael Curry, “Frozen”), aided by sharp lighting by Ben Stanton, Marcher is taunted by a literal beast embodied by the female dance ensemble of six in shifting forms, but the articulation of his plight remains too diffusely defined. 

James’ Marcher is an observer, paralyzed by fear; Stroman/Kander/Thompson’s Marcher is a participant, haunted by fear.  That distinction makes all the difference.  What’s more, the source of James’ beast remains undefined, whereas our Marcher is given a backstory of childhood abuse that serves, if nothing else, as grist for his adult neuroses.  Both decisions made in the course of fleshing out and crystallizing a more cryptic source material end up, instead, diminishing it.

The good news is that at age 91, Mr. Kander’s pen has not run dry, churning out three new musical works in just the last five years alone.  His waltz score for “The Beast in the Jungle” is divine, lushly orchestrated by Greg Anthony Rassen and Sam Davis, and fortunately performed by a nine piece band in the intimacy of the Vineyard’s 132 seat theatre.  I hope there are plans for a recording of Mr. Kander’s score, at times reminiscent of his work on “The Visit” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music”, but wholly original, and anchored by a haunting main theme.  

Ms. Stroman’s impeccable choreography is also a joy to experience, especially as performed by Mr. Yazbeck and Ms. Dvorovenko.  A game of musical chairs in Naples and a picnic scene in England are two highlights, displaying Ms. Stroman’s cleverness and a virtuosic feat of timing on behalf of her dancers.  She excels at these more playful scenes; when things turn dark, the storytelling via dance becomes less successful. 

The show, as a whole, never makes the impact it could or should.  It is beautiful to watch and hear, but dramatically unfulfilling.  In the end, I admire most the ambition (by some of my favorite artists) to translate a work of Henry James to a “dance play”, a rarely used form, and am grateful to the Vineyard for giving this trio of creatives another opportunity to collaborate.  I suspect, though, that Henry James would prefer we just read his novella.

Bottom Line: Susan Stroman, John Kander, and David Thompson continue their thirty year collaboration with “The Beast in the Jungle”, a “dance play” inspired by Henry James’ 1903 novella.  The dancing and music is beautiful to watch and hear, but the piece is dramatically unfulfilling, its more cryptic source material diminished in the course of fleshing out, crystallizing, and modernizing the story. 

The Beast in the Jungle
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
New York, NY  10003

Running Time: one hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: May 23, 2018
Final Performance: June 24, 2018
Tickets and Rush Tickets

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