At 91, composer John Kander has lost none of his gift for melodies or his power to enchant. “The Beast in the Jungle,” which opened Wednesday at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, boasts a lush and romantic score from the man who delivered Broadway classics like “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”
And his efforts are matched by the athletic and sometimes sexy dancing of Tony Yazbeck and Irina Dvorovenko, who play the star-crossed couple at the center of this new “dance play.”
Susan Stroman both directs and choreographs the show, which follows a young American playboy named John Marcher (Yazbeck) and a Russian woman (Dvorovenko) who sees right through him when they first meet in 1968 Russia — and almost manages to break through his trauma-hardened reserve when they hook up again 20 years later.
Yes, John Marcher is another one of those American men with an overriding failure to commit to a relationship — only in his case, it’s embodied physically as the “beast” of the title, and on stage by a variety of clever stage devices.
Full credit to Michael Curry’s scenic and costume design, with its deployment of puppetry and even bolts of cloth to enchanting effect. And Ben Stanton’s lighting is a revelation, adding new layers of meaning and heightening key moments.
But for all the stunning visuals and the spirited and balletic movement of the talented cast, “The Beast in the Jungle” remains steadily earthbound when it comes to David Thompson’s book.
The story is framed by an older John Marcher (Peter Friedman) offering hard-won relationship advice to his similarly commitment-phobic nephew (Yazbeck again) — but Marcher’s self-narration is too often an unnecessary distraction that slows down the proceedings.
A lovely scene of the younger Marcher lingering outside the almost-closed door of a middle-aged May and her husband (Teagle F. Bougere), watching the couple’s shadows cast in the sliver of light on the hallway floor, is piquantly re-created on stage — but the effect is dulled by Friedman describing everything that we are seeing and feeling.
It’s as if we’re watching a ballet with a real-time commentary track for the visually impaired.
The show’s three-part structure also reinforces a certain repetition — but there are no narrative surprises, even in the almost Psychology 101 revelation explaining the childhood trauma that supposedly led Marcher to stubbornly resist long-term romantic attachments.
“The Beast in the Jungle” most succeeds when it heeds that age-old writerly advice: Show, don’t tell. And boy does this production — and Kander’s gorgeous music — have a lot to show for itself.