The Review: Vineyard’s Beast in the Jungle
I’d pretty much go to see anything that the great John Kander is involved in and I am overjoyed and thrilled for this legend to be finding new pathways into a vibrant new musical theatre life creating such innovative and original pieces such as the haunting Kid Victory (with Greg Pierce). This time, Kandor and his glorious musical score flexes its muscle singularly without a lyricist applying any other layer to inform and relay. Rather the responsibility lies squarely with the slightly awkward dialogue by David Thompson, a book writer who has worked before with Kander and (Fred) Ebb on such shows as The Scottsboro Boys and Flora The Red Menace. The Vineyard Theatre has labeled this tale a ‘Dance Play’ but somewhere in its creation and deployment, it has became something of each without combining together into a solid whole.
For a production that is being called experimental and daring, the structure seems stuck within an obvious and constrained framework. It is basically a classic dance and a clumsy play folded in together like cards from two different decks. The book attempts to surround an older man’s history with deep and emotional mystery and meaning, but delivers clumsy contrived scenes that seem to strangle the actors trying to make it resonate. Outside of Peter Friedman (PH’s The Treasurer) and his intelligent reading as John Marcher, the bland dialogue does little to broaden the psychological view. He’s a man haunted by his romantic past and the Beast in the Jungle of his mind that keeps him from engaging deeply with another. It’s a strongly compelling concept, one that could have easily connected with our society of the disconnected, but fails at this task, staying mainly on the surface. And when pressed by his young troubled nephew, played by the talented and compelling dancer, Tony Yazbeck (Broadway’s On The Town, Gypsy with Patti LuPone), his story comes dancing out of the darkness of his memory and into its meaningful and engaging moment on stage. Yazbeck easily morphs into the young Marcher, gladly leaving behind the poorly constructed nephew role, strapping on his dancing shoes ready to dazzle us with his powerfully sensual and athletic dance skills. As the young disconnected charmer dancing through the hearts of every young and pretty woman he meets, Yazbeck is glorious and appealing, daring us to challenge his wicked smile and not fall for the handsome man. Matching him in the romanticized memory of Rome and London, is the beautiful ballerina, Irina Dvorovenko (Encores! On Your Toes) as the apple of Marcher’s eye, and the women that makes Marcher want to chase the beast away. She’s a glorious dancer who has a moderate ability to deliver a line, but when given the chance to talk to us through her physicality, she soars.
Together their dancing is the fire and drama in this 100 minute one act telling of the story of a traumatic attachment disorder. Directed and choreographed by the powerful Susan Stroman (The Producers), the two dancers melt away all the clumsiness and awkwardness in the dialogue. With the highly creative design of the beast and the demons of the heart, the ballet segments give us everything this story wants to talk about, creating a dynamic fire that the play portion doesn’t deserve. The set and costumes by Michael Curry (Broadway’s Frozen), with lighting by Ben Stanton (Public’s The Low Road), and sound design by Peter Hylenski (Broadway’s Something Rotten!) swirl us around the globe as we watch Marcher’s heart and soul fight an internal battle with the beastly fears of hurt and vulnerability. In that present day New York apartment, they talk but never about the cause or the trauma that created this problem. That doesn’t seem to be the intent, just a structure to bring us the dance. Luckily, the beautiful bodies float out to us surrounded by the glorious chords from Kandor, assisted by the music supervisor, David Loud (Broadway’s The Visit), music director, Greg Jarrett (Broadway’s Fun Home), music arrangements and orchestrations by Sam Davis (Broadway’s Prince of Broadway) and orchestrations Greg Anthony Rassen (Broadway’s Bandstand). It fills the theatre rapturously although slightly unmemorable after the last notes fade away. The chorus of dancing women and the one other actor who plays both the husband and stranger, Teagle F. Bougere (Public’s Julius Caesar) rarely rise above the obvious and provisional. Much like the story on both counts. It would have been interesting to see if they could have found a way to blend the two more completely, deepening the dialogue to explore the reasons rather than just the symptoms and the results. I get that in that disconnect is where the romantic tragedy exists, and therefore where the dance soars, but if there is to be dialogue, it would be good if there was more of an exploration, rather than stiff procedural storytelling.