With this show, John Kander won’t be asked “Which came first — the music or the lyrics?”
For there are no lyrics in THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE, which means there’s nothing for anyone to sing.
Kander has instead provided music and music only for director-choreographer Susan Stroman and her “dance play.” A quick look at the orchestra before the show begins clues us that this will be an elegant score – for these days, how many shows have a harp?
How many off-Broadway musicals have nine musicians on hand? That figure has sometimes “sufficed” for Broadway musicals. Needless to say, the cello, off-Broadway’s de rigueur instrument, is there.
The show is not unlike Stroman’s Tony-winning CONTACT, although instead of three stories, we have one based on Henry James’ 1903 novella. Now bookwriter (or should we say playwright?) David Thompson has made the tale substantially more engrossing.
James told of John Marcher, who won the love of May Bartram and then did nothing to retain it. John had an unusually great uneasiness that something terrible would eventually happen to him.
Did he feel that marrying May would cause her to share his awful fate so he’d spare her? Or was John a precursor to Bobby in COMPANY and simply unable to make a commitment? Or, given James’ ascetic and asexual lifestyle, was he expressing in a novella a clef that he wouldn’t be up to the challenges that every relationship, no matter how solid, inevitably meets in and out of bed?
Good questions all, and ones that Thompson explores and often answers. He’s retained James’ title, much of that story and has brought it into the present day; that’s apparent in the opening moments when John complains about texting.
Thompson’s greatest change – and brainstorm (unless it came from Stroman or Kander) — was creating and adding two important characters. However, as vital as they are, Thompson has oddly opted to deny them names: Nephew and Husband are all he bestows on them.
We first meet the grim-mouthed, irascible and pretentious John (Peter Friedman). Note that white scarf around his neck that is long enough for each end to reach his waist. He could almost pass for a priest.
Nephew (Tony Yazbeck), a short story writer himself, comes calling on his uncle in desperation. His girlfriend insisted on marriage, so now Nephew has an ex-girlfriend.
“You don’t want to be like me,” John says, afraid that the sins of the uncle will be laid upon Nephew. He takes the young man (and us) back 50 years to when he met May. To let us know that Yazbeck will play the younger version of John, Stroman has Friedman pass not a torch but that scarf which he positions over Yazbeck’s shoulders.
Young Marcher, as he’s billed, was in 1968 an art dealer who was living in the U.S.S.R. Dancing onto the stage come six women whom costume designer Michael Curry has put in identical crimson dresses to show that all females are the same to John. That May enters dressed in light orange lets us know that she’ll be special in John’s eyes.
They’re in an art museum where May often “escapes” the Soviet Union’s dullness by seeing Matisse’s famous 1910 painting Dance (II). Young Marcher, however, insists that “she was the work of art.”
As performed by former American Ballet Theatre star Irina Dvorovenko, May certainly is. In addition to the style, grace and precision we’d expect even from one who’s officially retired from the ballet world, Dvorovenko shines as an actress. When Young Marcher tries to engage her in a discussion about art – just as a way of opening the door to seduction – Dvorovenko puts the right emphasis on “I can always spot a fake” to let him know that she isn’t fooled by a Lothario. When he rebuts “You are teasing me,” she states in a no-nonsense voice what she’s noticed about his behavior with his various women: “No, you are teasing them. And you get in the way,” she says, complaining of his blocking her view of the Matisse – and certainly implying that he’s getting in her way in another sense.
Dvorovenko is also impressive in how she ages, for the action takes us to 30 years ago, or 20 years after Young Marcher and May’s first meeting. Here’s where Husband comes in – hers. He’s been so successful that each “s” in the word should be spelled $ucce$$.
As is the case with so many women who are initially distant with arduous men, May winds up caring more for Young Marcher than she would have thought. That brings us to the show’s most amusing scene. The three go to the ballet and the way that Young Marcher and May rekindle their romance while Husband is right there sitting next to them is both funny and all-too-true-to-life.
Pretty soon after we get the show’s creepiest scene in which Young Marcher does a most maverick thing in order to “just for a moment” make Husband’s life his own. Thompson reiterates what James wrought – that this is not a particularly well-adjusted man.
However, Tony Yazbeck has enough native appeal and a sense of longing that we care and root for him. Stroman has given him plenty of balletic moves which would make lesser performers look somewhere between effete and silly; Yazbeck always manages to come across as butch. (His rugged good looks help.) Even the way Yazbeck rises from a chair shows both style and a complete command of his body.
Too bad that THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE hadn’t opened two months ago when members of the Tony committee might just have sauntered off-Broadway and seen it; Yazbeck would have reminded them of how spectacular he is and might have received a well-deserved nomination for his work last year in PRINCE OF BROADWAY. In the years to come, the Tonys will make it up to Tony time and time again in the many shows he’ll be avidly pursued to do.
And while we’re on the subject of awards, Ben Stanton’s lighting deserves the prize from every organization that has that category. Red has always been the color that represents passion, but Stanton goes more for blue and yet makes it seethe.
What is slightly regrettable is that Thompson and Stroman didn’t remember Ferenc Molnar’s famous reaction when he saw his play LILIOM adapted as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CAROUSEL. Molnar’s ending was bleak while R&H’s wasn’t – and the playwright told them he was glad that they’d changed it.
Here the creators have a chance to do much the same but don’t. Sports teams that lose a game they should have won are often said to have “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE is running that risk in its final moments when it should have ended with its more palatable penultimate scene.
At least John Kander’s wondrous music is there to ameliorate. Six of the 17 selections that are listed in the program actually have the word “waltz” in their titles; most everything is in ¾ time. That approach brings to mind Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in which he did the same. When that landmark musical opened in 1973, Clive Barnes, then of the Times, said “Good God! An adult musical!” So is THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE – but today such a sophisticated show is even more unexpected and welcomed when so many musicals are decidedly kid’s stuff.
In a manner of speaking, John Kander is returning to his roots, for his first Broadway assignments were providing dance arrangements for the initial production of GYPSY and dance music for the original IRMA LA DOUCE. He was in his early thirties then, and had less to provide for those musicals, believe me, than he’s composed here – and he’s now in (can it be?!) his early nineties.
Considering that revivals of CABARET and of course CHICAGO have put more money in Kander’s bank account than some suburban banks have in their vaults, the man does not need to work. How wonderful that he wants to — and how more wonderful yet that he still can deliver.