Theater Review: GATSBY (World Premiere Musical at American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA)

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by Lynne Weiss on June 13, 2024

in Theater-Boston


F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby recently entered the public domain, and as we approach the centenary of this American classic published in 1925, there is a plethora of stage adaptations, including the lavish musical now on Broadway. I haven’t seen any of the others, but I’m willing to wager that Gatsby, which opened tonight at American Repertory Theater will compete successfully with any of them. Directed by the talented Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812), With music by Florence Welch (Florence + the Machine) and Thomas Bartlett (also known as Doveman) and book by Martyna Majok (Pulitzer for Cost of Living), not to mention choreography by Tony Award-winning Sonya Tayeh (Moulin Rouge!), scenic design by Tony-Award winning Mimi Lien, and Academy-Award winning costume designer Sandy Powell, you might worry, as I confess I did, that this production might suffer from an excess of talent, vision, and ego. (Welch also wrote lyrics and Bartlett provided arrangements for the 13-piece orchestra.)

I needn’t have worried. I would urge anyone who can do so to see this very satisfying production. While film adaptations of the novel have tended to revel in the jazz-age excess of Gatsby’s lifestyle and the tragedy of Gatsby himself, this version brings forward the lives of the two female leads, Daisy and Myrtle, and Myrtle’s working-class husband Wilson. Nick’s search for meaning and a reason to live in the wake of World War I and the “plague” (influenza pandemic of 1918–1919) are also brought to the forefront, giving this production a present-day relevance that goes beyond the fascination with Gatsby’s glitzy lifestyle.

Cory Jeacoma (Tom), Solea Pfeiffer (Myrtle),
and members of the company in the A.R.T. world premiere of Gatsby

At the Loeb Drama Center, mobile phones were locked away in packets that could only be unlocked by an usher at the end of the show (my first experience with this, but a good direction as I’ve had the unpleasant experience of sitting behind people who were filming performances). The broad proscenium stage appeared to be littered with lead-colored smashed-up auto parts and other hard-to identify wreckage along the left edge and rear of the stage; an observant spectator could see hints of the orchestra along the ridge line of this apparent debris, including a piano perched unobtrusively (I had to point it out to my companion) at the far right. And right at the front of the stage, audience right, is the very prominent green light that appears at the end of Daisy’s dock, the green light of Gatsby’s dreams of his future with Daisy.

Nick is the first to appear on stage, and from the moment Ben Levi Ross begins to sing “Welcome to the New World” we know we are in good hands. He describes his longing for noise, for a new world in the wake of the destructiveness of war, and the rubble on the stage takes on new meaning — the world as a whole has been smashed by war and disease — not just its buildings but the people themselves.

Isaac Powell (Gatsby) and Charlotte MacInnes (Daisy)

Nick, who is dressed in white trousers with a white-and-gray striped jacket, is joined on the stage by the fifteen-member ensemble dressed in shades of black and gray. Two other actors in red hover nearby (the wreckage also functions as steps) whom we will soon learn are Myrtle and Wilson. (Characters are identified by only single names.) Sandy Powell employs a powerful iconography in her costume design: Daisy, Tom, and their friend Jordan are dressed in white; Myrtle and Wilson in red; while Gatsby (and at one point, Daisy) wear pink. Generally in gray and black, the hardworking ensemble — when they aren’t singing and executing Tayeh’s very watchable choreography — move pieces of the set around (the list of additional staff included physical therapists). I loved the gender-fluid nature of the ensemble’s costuming. It’s a small touch but that — in addition to a brief interlude with one of the ensemble — helped to dramatize not only Nick’s ambiguous sexuality but the changing attitudes of the times.

Ben Levi Ross (Nick) and members of the ensemble

At some point, I noticed that the hems of the skirts and trousers, whatever their color, had horizontal bands of orange and sepia, as though stained by walking through mud or muck. I don’t recall whether the red clothing of Myrtle and Wilson had such stains — common sense tells me they would not have been visible, leaving me to guess that they appeared only on the white, black, and pink clothing. The subtle stains, if that was what they were, added intrigue to the other pleasures of this production; did they represent guilt for the tragic outcome of the story?

Isaac Powell (Gatsby), Charlotte MacInnes (Daisy), and members of the ensemble

Solea Pfeiffer is well-cast as Myrtle. Her powerful voice and her passionate portrayal of a woman dealing with tragedy make her a standout and aid in what I think was part of the goal of this production — to shift some of the focus away from the rich and richer and onto those whose lives are affected by them. Though Myrtle initially appears to be a selfish floozy, she wins our sympathy. (My one quibble with the costuming was to wonder why her dress was cut to be so unflattering; she’s supposedly a hot ticket, and yet the baggy shape of her dress made her look dowdy.)

Likewise Charlotte MacInnes as Daisy, who initially struck me as uninteresting and her dilemma regarding romantic partners as fairly mundane (debutants aren’t my style). Her voice is not nearly as compelling as that of Pfeiffer but as the play progressed MacInnes gave the role of Daisy more dimension. She is both the cause and the victim of tragedy. Both women are dealing with the loss or potential loss of a child and though they have very different circumstances, that gives them a shared humanity. Eleri Ward as Jordan, though a relatively minor character, brings exactly the kind of cynical sophistication the role requires.

Ross has a challenge in portraying Nick. As in the novel, he’s more of a narrator than an actor in the drama of the story, but he is a wonderful vocalist and he embodies Nick’s longing for meaning and his loss of innocence as he comes to understand that the Gatsby he once admired is not what he appeared to be (Gatsby is also well-portrayed—and well sung—by Isaac Powell). And I have to mention Adam Grupper, who brought the shady Wolfsheim into sharp relief, first as a lovable father-figure; later as a threat. And Matthew Amira, in the seemingly minor role as Wilson, really does become a star at the right moment, a testament to his acting and Majok’s book.

This is a musical, and the music plays a leading role. Varied as the characters and their perspectives, it offers the “noise” Nick is in search of, not in any negative sense, but in the sense that noise = life = energy = rebirth. The score tends to have a driving beat and is highly danceable, but not all of it. Daisy’s “I’ve Changed My Mind,” for example, is tender and poignant. Many of the themes and ideas are incorporated in lyrics, and not — as one might be tempted to do in adapting a classic novel — projected or narrated in voice over. Lyrics such as “A Smile Like That Is Rare,” “The Dream Fought On,” and “We Beat On,” closely follow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s text and the musical treatment emphasizes that.

This is why I wish the lyrics had been more audible. The lines I was able to catch were substantive and satisfying, but Bartlett’s orchestrations (with Sally Herbert and Thomas Burhorn), or perhaps Tony Gayle‘s sound-mixing, obscured too many lines for my taste; hopefully, this will be adjusted for future performances. Finally, while it’s probably pointless to say this, now that A.R.T. is removing access to our electronic devices, how about printed programs?

photos by Julieta Cervantes

American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.)
Harvard University
Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square, 64 Brattle St in Cambridge
two hours and forty minutes, including one fifteen-minute intermission
ends on August 3, 2024
for tickets, visit A.R.T.

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