Off-Broadway Review: “The Beast in the Jungle” at the Vineyard Theatre

Off-Broadway Review: “The Beast in the Jungle” at the Vineyard Theatre ( Extended through Sunday June 24, 2018)
Music by John Kander
Book by David Thompson
Inspired by the Novella by Henry James
Directed and Choreographed by Susan Stroman
Reviewed by Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited

A novella by Henry James is the inspiration for the new Dance Play “The Beast in the Jungle” which marks the final mainstage production of the Vineyard Theater’s 35th Anniversary Season. The book by David Thompson follows the escapades of John Marcher (a credible Peter Friedman) over several decades, as he battles demons and searches for the single entity that seems to elude him. The structure is that of a memory play, with the main character acting as narrator as he reveals the story of his past to his young nephew, (an outstanding Tony Yazbeck), hoping that he will heed the advice and not be intimidated by the jeopardy of love. It is a profound tale of love and passion that seems to necessitate more than spoken words to communicate the emotional content and embellish the beauty of desire, intimacy and endearment.

So, director and choreographer Susan Stroman uses the language of dance as a liaison between discourse and sentiment to reach the complex core of the characters. Joy, pain, fear, excitement, tension and angst explode in the movement, fulfilling the moment that conveys a stimulating impulse of each persona. It is so personal yet so revealing, so fluid yet so powerful and manages to provide pages of beautiful illustrations to accompany the narrative.

Mr. Yazbeck is engaging as the inquisitive and melancholy nephew but hits his stride as the evocative young John Marcher, ever so determined to escape the beast of his tortured soul. As he dances, his body intrudes the common space to sculpt images that perfectly delineate a psyche which is always compatible with his mien. Sometimes floating and at others burdened, but always on point, punctuating musical notes as if they were suspended in the air. The object of his affection is May Bertram, portrayed with distinct elegance and intrigue by the beautiful Irina Dvorovenko. Her lyrical dancing captures the essence of her character and evolves somewhere between a dream and reality. She is innocent, intelligent and insightful as she captures the heart of her paramour. Their chemistry is magical. Mr. Friedman is given a difficult task of revealing his story solely with words of David Thompson’s book, in juxtaposition to the interpretation through dance which contributes to a more linear and sequential performance. At times his anger diminishes his empathy.

Rounding out the cast are Teagle F. Bougere who turns in a solid performance as the Husband/Stranger and the Women, an ensemble of dancers who support the principals and add substance and clarity to each scene. Rather than assuming the role of a Greek Chorus, they appear as Muses and create a force on inspiration. Maira Barriga, Elizabeth Dugas, Leah Hofmann, Naomi Kakuk, Brittany Marcin Maschmeyer, and Erin N. Moore execute Ms. Stroman’s choreography to perfection.

This is a production that pushes boundaries of traditional musical theater relying on the melodic score by John Kander, sometimes reminiscent of his earlier work and always pleasing to the ear but void of lyrics. It serves as an underscore tempering the mood of each scene. It is not a perfect endeavor into a new genre and comes with a few misgivings that could be revised but certainly delivers a creative, entertaining evening of theater.