In this fifth collaboration between Kander/Thompson and Stroman, three of them at Vineyard Theatre, they have created a new form, a “dance play” in which there is dialogue spoken by the actors and no songs, but the musical portions are all choreographed with dancers from Broadway musicals. Beginning in a New York apartment in 2018, the musical uses a narrator John Marcher (Peter Friedman) to tell his tragic story to his nephew (Tony Yazbeck) who in the flashbacks becomes him at two earlier ages. The nephew has arrived for a meal and a room since he has just been made homeless by his girlfriend of long standing who has thrown him out when he at last refused to marry her.
Set in three parts, The Beast in the Jungle tells the story of Marcher’s encounters with May Bertram (played by former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Irina Dvorovenko), a fascinating woman that Marcher cannot commit to as a result of his personal demons. Having been abandoned as a child, he firmly believes that he must wait for an overwhelming love to take over his life but he fears that it will also engulf anyone around him. When he meets May in Naples he falls for her, as they spend a night on the beach at Pompeii. However, he runs away when his demons (his beast in the jungle) appear to attack him, leaving May as a fond memory.
Becoming a world famous art dealer, he continues to have multiple promiscuous affairs but is unable to commit to anyone. Twenty years after Naples he meets her again in an English country house in the Cotswolds but she is now married to his client, a millionaire art collector. When he tells his nephew his story, another 20 years have passed and he has just met her for the third time as a widow in Manhattan but loses her yet again. Marcher uses his life story as a cautionary tale to tell Marcher’s nephew not to miss the train as he had, shades of the avuncular Lambert Strether/Chad Newsome relationship in James’ magnum opus, The Ambassadors.
While Friedman is rather dour as Marcher, Yazbeck who has won the Astaire Award for his dancing in On the Town is charming as the sexy young John. The lovely Dvorovenko, a veritable ballet star, always seems to be dancing when we see her in the flashbacks. The only other character is May’s English husband played by the suave Teagle F. Bougere, a dramatic actor who is not asked to dance. The cast is augmented by six women dancers who play all of the other characters, including Marcher’s many girlfriends, the husband’s weekend guests, as well as Marcher’s demons. Though the story is always both told by narration and enhanced by spoken dialogue, there are a great many plot elements conveyed by the varied dances which at times includes ballet as well as folk dances.
Stroman has created 15 beautiful dances that forward the story set to Kander’s melodic and memorable waltz-inspired score. Matisse’s famous painting “The Dance” in which five pink nude women cavort on a green beach behind a very blue sky is referenced in all three parts of the story and Stroman’s choreography recreates this differently in each part with a somewhat different meaning.
The very blue minimalist settings (designed by Michael Curry to lighting by Ben Stanton) as well as the dances wittily suggest paintings for this life story of an art dealer. Curry’s color-coordinated costumes which develop in the course of the evening are also just right. May is first seen in tangerine in the Naples section, beige and salmon pink in the English section and black in the Manhattan section, while the six other dancers have various colors for the different moods and plot elements. The orchestrations by Greg Anthony Rassen & Sam Davis, along with Greg Jarrett conducting the orchestra of nine musicians, add to the beauty of Kander’s first all-dance score.
While The Beast in the Jungle is a musical for our time it contains a message that was dear to the heart of writer Henry James, that of the unlived life. Ultimately very moving when the story reaches its conclusion, the exquisite Vineyard Theatre production is for elite tastes but all dedicated theatergoers, not the casual entertainment seekers, should see it. It may well start a new trend in theatre musicals, one in which the emotional sections are danced rather than sung.
The Beast in the Jungle (extends through June 24, 2018)
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-353-0303 or visit http://www.vineyardtheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes without an intermission