The Beast in the Jungle is a dance play. Movement, music, and narrative intertwine in a new way to heighten this cautionary tale of a man haunted by personal demons and his unfulfilled love affair with a remarkable woman.
John Kander created a score comprised entirely of waltzes that intensifies the romance and longing. Ballet, ballroom, jazz, and modern dance define the love a person experiences over a lifetime – young love, adult passion, and, finally, the resolve of a more mature love affair.
The three-part story revolves around art dealer John Marcher, played by the powerful Peter Friedman. It opens with John Marcher walking home from a funeral. He is escorted by his Beast, a looming spectral presence. Once home in his apartment, Marcher’s nephew (Tony Yazbeck) arrives fresh from a breakup with his girlfriend. Marcher tells his nephew he should return to his love and make it right – “Don’t make the same mistake I made.” He precedes to tell his nephew about the woman he has loved for his whole life. Magically before us appears Marcher’s past and his nephew transforms into Young John Marcher as we watch his first encounter with the transcendent May (Irina Dvoroenko).
Dance propels the love story of Young Marcher and May. They each move with different styles, illustrating the theme of ‘opposites attract’. Young Marcher, as played exquisitely by Tony Yazbeck, moves in a rhythmic, athletic fashion. His love, May, moves in a more lyrical and graceful style – Irina danced the role of May with passion and elegance. Tony and Irina had a palpable chemistry when they danced, moving through every emotion – joy, fear, tension. They were fearless in rehearsal as we explored different movements motivated by the complex emotions of each character.
The Greek Chorus of dancing women are there to observe and comment, moving poetically through the lives of Marcher and May. Whether recreating a painting by Matisse or using puppetry to bring life to Marcher’s Beast, these extraordinary dancers always hit the right tone.
Creative artist Michael Curry was perfect for this abstract morality tale. His Matisse-inspired visuals and his imaginative use of puppetry to give The Beast its form were exquisitely rendered – the dancers loved learning the art of puppetry from the master himself. Michael’s Beast creation was beautifully enhanced by the colorful and moody lighting design by the talented Ben Stanton. Both Michael and Ben embraced the small stage of the Vineyard Theatre, turning it into a magic memory space.
One element of the show completely new to me was something we called “The Beast Machine” – an instrument created for horror movie music and professionally known as the Apprehension Engine. Each time Marcher’s Beast appeared, operator Harrison Beck would play this unique instrument in sync with the dancers’ movements. The machine itself is a variety of strings, metal bars, wheels, and bows attached to a large wooden box that resonates with a very eerie, unsettling sound – it would scare the pants off anyone! The music department of The Beast in the Jungle was the top in the business. Musical Supervisor David Loud and dance arranger Sam Davis strategically placed the Apprehension Engine throughout John Kander’s haunting and melancholic score.
The opportunity to tell a highly romantic story of love and loss through hypnotic waltzes was inspiring. David Thompson, John Kander, and I loved examining the interchange of drama, dance, and music with a tale of love, loneliness, and fate. We were grateful to Doug Aibel and Sarah Stern at the Vineyard Theatre for giving us a chance to try something new and push the boundaries of traditional musical theater.
Working on this psychological morality tale brought to light the hope that someday we all will be able to tame our inner beasts and embrace what makes life meaningful.
Music by John Kander
Book by David Thompson
Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set and Design by Michael Curry
Lighting Design by Ben Stanton
Sound Design by Peter Hylenski
Musical Direction by Greg Jarrett