which counts among its stars Irina Dvorovenko. The "dance play" which was inspired by the Henry James novella of the same name has been in previews at the Vineyard Theatre on East 15th Street for a couple of weeks and is slated for its official opening night this coming Wednesday.
Susan Stroman directed and choreographed; John Kander wrote the music; and David Thompson developed the book. In addition to Irina, the cast stars Tony Yazbeck, Peter Friedman, Teagle F. Bougere and a corps of dancing women.
The Vineyard Theatre stage, which is not really large enough to accommodate sprawling choreography, has in the past served as an incubator for Broadway productions Avenue Q, Scottsboro Boys, and the original How I Learned to Drive. The Beast in the Jungle is definitely a production that would be better served by a larger stage. Perhaps it will be someday.
Of course, the reason Haglund went to the show during the first weekend of previews was to see Irina Dvorovenko who is developing into one of the freshest, most interesting new musical theater stars in New York. This spring her stage skills are once again much missed during the ABT season. Who can forget the ungraceful push out the door (to make room for guest artists) that Kevin McKenzie gave her and which still stings her fans. Truth be told, were it not for her recent private coaching of several of ABT's brightest talents, the company would be in a much more sorry state than it already is.
For those who are unfamiliar with Henry James's novella, The Beast in the Jungle is about a man who believes that his future holds a dramatic event – The Beast – that will determine his life's meaning. He forgoes love and marrying, and does not even allow himself to get close to a woman who truly loves him while he waits for the unknown event to occur. It turns out that The Beast was his wasting of his life while doing nothing but obsessing over some unknown future event.
The Beast in the Jungle is unlike Stroman’s other well known dance play Contact in that the dance aspect of the production is incidental to the development of the story. The choreography is necessarily uncomplicated given the size of the stage and once in a while can seem to intrude, particularly when the corps dancers arrive in mass although there are only a half dozen of them.
What's great about The Beast in the Jungle? The acting.
Peter Friedman masterfully portrayed the main character, John Marcher, who wastes his life away while waiting for the unknown to happen. We think, however, that the book for the play could be tinkered with to more emphatically convey what Marcher's Beast was. While it was revealed, the lesson within it wasn't particularly clear.
Teagle F. Bougere as the art collector/dealer husband of Irina's character in later life held on to her like a prized painting on his wall. When he sensed that young Marcher might still be interested in his wife from their previous encounter years earlier, there was convincing talk of the husband's skill with guns and of shooting the wild prey that invaded his property.
Tony Yazbeck's performance in the dual role of the young Marcher and the Nephew of Friedman's older Marcher was a tour de force. As the evening progressed and Yazbeck danced and brilliantly switched back and forth between his two characters, we wanted him to break out into a song. Alas, there are no songs in this dance play. (We still can't believe that his work in the Hal Prince revue Prince of Broadway went unrewarded by the Tony nominating committee this year.)
The biggest reward of the evening was witnessing the mercurial advancement of Irina Dvorovenko's acting skills and authority. As she developed her character, May Bertram, from young girl to a woman of advanced age with illness, we were reminded of Irina's gripping performances as Marguerite Gautier in John Neumeier's Lady of the Camellias and in John Cranko's Onegin -- only this time, she created life's transitions with dialogue as well as movement. Her posture became less straight and her gait less steady as she aged on stage. Her voice changed. Her spirit changed from being filled with youthful whimsy to acceptance of her life's Plan B because Plan A was never truly an option. Every single word that came out of her character's mouth was believable and natural.
The dance part of this dance play revealed that Irina still out-classes all but a few of her former colleagues who remain at ABT. Classical discipline and her respect for doing things correctly is embedded in her movement. She traversed the small stage area seizing opportunities for full arabesques and attitudes. Without giving away too much detail, we'll reveal that there was a bathtub scene with Yazbeck that included some over-the-top choreography. An extended Pas de Deux between the two had flair and ingenuity. But the audience, being so close to the small stage, could observe the dancers' effort. As we indicated earlier, this production would look much better in a larger venue.
The Beast in the Jungle triumphs as a rewarding and transportive couple of hours in Off Broadway theater. In addition to the outstanding acting and dancing, John Kander's beautiful music was filled with waltzing melodies that were immediately hummable. The scenery and costumes by Michael Curry were appealing. (We say that knowing full well that Irina could wear a brown paper bag and make it look spectacular.) Ben Stanton's lighting design created great tension in the play, particularly when it evoked The Beast.
Haglund is going back for another look-see in the coming weeks. The Beast had its run extended at the Vineyard Theatre even before it opened for previews. It now runs until June 17th. Tickets here.
Go check it out.