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THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE at the Vineyard Theatre

The reliable finesse of choreography and direction of Susan Stroman can’t compensate for the clunky, labored book by David Thompson of THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE, billed as a “dance play” adapted from the Henry James novella, now at the Vineyard Theatre. An aging, internationally successful New York art dealer John Marcher (played by Peter Friedman) acquires a Matisse study of the La Dans (the famous dancers on the beach) which prompts him to confess a lifetime tale of emotional failure to his nephew (Tony Yazbeck). Time-tripping backwards, Yazbeck assumes the role of a Lothario Marcher in his young adulthood in Naples where his “beast “- the fear of emotional commitment - dooms a blossoming love of May (ballerina Irina Dvorovenko), a beautiful young Russian émigré. Decades later Marcher gets a second chance with May, when he procures art for an English client who, coincidentally, is married to her. Marcher hunts down the study of the famous Matisse painting he and May admired on a museum date when infatuated with each other in Naples.

Childhood trauma is the root of Marcher’s emotional dysfunction but that is so dramatically undeveloped, it plays as cliché. And Thompson, distinguished by a vibrant THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, here pens dialogue that is stiff or just plain corny. In a series of rhyming, flirtatious back-and-forths with young beauties, a conjugal prospect of Marcher jests “meet me in the cloisters”: he retorts “I’ll bring the oysters”.

Any narrative vitality in BEAST arrives in Stroman’s dance sequences and choreographed story-telling. Collaborating ingeniously with scenic designer Michael Curry, Stroman creates charming sequences like May’s rescue of a skiff in deep waters off the beach in Pompeii, or a tableau of garden statuary on May’s husband’s Cotswold estate. The six dancers from Matisse’s study come alive as dance ensemble cum Greek chorus. Composer John Kander provides a haunting, elegiac score with a waltz motif, sensitively played by a nine-piece orchestra, that weaves in and out for a slowly paced, needlessly long, one hour and 45 minutes. Kander’s music is pretty, but its utility here is welcome substitute for character dialogue.

As his career matures, Yazbeck - arguably the best male lead dancer in the business recalls Gene Kelly more and more. Dvorovenko’s feminine grace complements perfectly Yazbeck's masculine athleticism. They’re best in an exquisitely choreographed dance of lustful lovemaking. Freidman, with only a speaking role, can’t dance his way around a badly written part, but he’s not believable as what a young, sexy Marcher would have aged into anyway.

And what about the Matisse study of the dancers? It provides both narrative basis and visual motif for the chorus for the entire production, but it inexplicably vanishes from the storyline. Whatever happened to it? I’m still scratching my head.

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