The key description for “The Beast in the Jungle,” subtitled “a Dance Play,” is "inspired by,” not adapted from, the novella by Henry James. With a glittering combination of John Kander’s music, book by David Thompson and direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, the result is a striking and original production that stands solidly on its own terms in this Vineyard Theatre presentation.
The two principal dancers, Tony Yazbeck and Irina Dvorovenko, are exquisite individually and together, and their work alone provides enough visual satisfaction for one show. But Stroman has also assembled a lovely female chorus —six tall, gorgeous dancers who move gracefully and elegantly through imaginative sequences. They are Maira Barriga, Elizabeth Dugas, Leah Hoffmann, Naomi Kakuk, Brittany Marcin Maschmeyer and Erin N. Moore.
Kander’s score is deeply impressive, varyingly romantic, playful, passionate, menacing and melodious—played by a nine member orchestra that includes a harp, with music direction by Greg Jarrett, also at piano and celeste. It is a score that in itself provides great pleasure.
Michael Curry has designed scenery that includes swiftly moving panels, shimmering sheets that stand in for an ocean, and contributions by a shadowy chorus waving ghost-like effects. Curry has also contributed eye-catching costumes, and Ben Stanton’s lighting design is spectacular.
At the core is the story on which the visual excursion rests. Peter Friedman gives a strong performance as John Marcher, a troubled art dealer who recounts his being mentally plagued by a demon beast and the sad story of his life and love to his nephew, played by Yazbeck, who in the flashbacks enacts the young Marcher.
Broadway star Yazbeck has been awarded powerful and emotional choreography by Stroman, and for May Bertram, the tragic love of Marcher’s life, he has a superb partner in Dvorovenko, who began her career with the National Opera Ballet of Kiev and then danced major roles with the American Ballet Theater from 2000-2014.
Yazbeck and Dvorovenko project charm when they first meet in Italy and later, when they meet again after May is married (her husband is played by Teagle F. Bougere), there is a very sexy dance interlude communicating sneaky copulation movement with the husband nearby. It is a further example of Stroman’s inventiveness, carried out deftly by her principal dancers.
The production, its visual splendor notwithstanding, is not without problems. The need to flesh out the story of love found, lost, found again, and lost again, as well as the influence the tale has on the nephew and his personal problems, is at times burdensome. The excellent acting gets across the emotional drama when required, but the portions not expressed through dance drag at times. “The Beast in the Jungle” is best when the music, dance and overall production values combine to be the most prominent. At the Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, Phone: 212-353-0303. Reviewed May 31, 2018.