ART’s Gatsby is brilliant but lacks emotional resonance

The stage sparkled Wednesday night for the world premiere of American Repertory Theater’s stunning new musical “The Great Gatsby.”

A hill of scrap metal studded with lights forms the stairs and landing, and a silver lamé curtain marks the entrance. A full band sits amid cascading alien shrapnel that appears to hang behind the stage. The imaginative set—a movable staircase and an elaborate living room that extends upward from the stage floor—was designed by set designer and MacArthur fellow Mimi Lien.

From the first powerful steps (choreographed by Sonia Taye), it’s clear that viewers are in for a captivating journey with a talented and refreshingly diverse cast. However, it’s helpful to revisit the storyline as the production jumps full speed into the action. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the acting before actually being exposed to the plot for the first time. The show is directed by Rachel Chavkin, who helmed the thrilling Hadestown, with music supervision by Kimberly Grigsby and Willie DeWeese. Wiley DeWeese’s musical direction and emotional scenes drive the pulse of this narrative, filled with powerful numbers.

“The Great Gatsby” is adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel “The Great Gatsby”, which tells the story of the roaring 1920s. The story takes place on Long Island, New York, and is directed by Florence + the Machine. with a score by Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett (with additional orchestration and arrangements by Sally Herbert and Thomas Burhorn) and a book by Martina Mayock. (Mayock wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Cost of Living.”) During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayock revisited Fitzgerald’s work, which ended with World War I and 1918 influenza pandemic behavioral background. She explained in an interview with TheaterMania that in the book, many people are killed by the virus, so she “understands the parties and the feral hunger that each person has trying to pursue meaning to make up for the death and destruction they’ve witnessed.”

Ben Levi Ross and orchestra members at the ART world premiere of
Ben Levi Ross and orchestra members at the ART world premiere of “Gatsby.” (Courtesy of Giulietta Cervantes)

It has been nearly 100 years since Fitzgerald’s “Jazz Age” stories were published. The story centers on Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire who longs to reunite with Daisy Buchanan, a woman from the past. Lovers, wealthy socialites. Gatsby longs to be a permanent fixture in her wealthy world, and he does more than he cares to say in order to climb this social ladder. But Daisy is married to the extremely wealthy and famous Tom Buchanan, who has an affair with Myrtle, who feels suffocated by Daisy’s marriage and social class. Although at first it may seem like a convoluted love story, Fitzgerald tells a larger story about unrequited love, power, and the cost of society’s all-consuming pursuit of more.

ART’s “Gatsby” is not to be confused with other “Gatsby” musicals. Kait Kerrigan’s jazz- and pop-influenced “The Great Gatsby” is currently playing on Broadway. Fitzgerald’s works entered the public domain in 2021, allowing new works to be developed without the estate’s consent, including these dueling stage works.

In the artistic version, the cast and ensemble had many great moments throughout the show. Ben Levy Roth aptly plays Nick Carraway, the narrator of this classic tragedy, who befriends the mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby. But Solea Pfeiffer’s singing voice as Myrtle is gorgeous, and Charlotte MacInnes Daisy is the most ferocious of them all.

Pfeiffer, in her first national tour of “Hamilton,” embodies troubled Myrtle, doted upon by her kind-hearted husband Wilson (Matthew Amira). Myrtle gets a taste of wealth through her romance with Tom, and she’s trying to keep it that way. Her rousing renditions of “Shakin Off the Dust” and “What of Love, What of God,” sung with her husband, one track talks about the confidence she gained through acquiring money and power, while another relieved her melancholy. She and her husband lost their daughter to an untreatable disease because they had no money to see a doctor. So, Myrtle wants nothing to do with their house and marriage anymore. She puts on a show at a party that Tom (Cory Jacoma) takes her to, but her husband Wilson tells her honestly that she can’t live at the party. Real life pain and loss will catch up with her.

McGinnis plays Daisy in “Golden Girl,” a song about being a trophy wife, and she takes a more nostalgic turn in “I’ve Changed My Mind,” a song that tells the story of being a trophy wife. It tells the story of a time when she wanted to pursue her love for Gatsby instead of Tom. It was at this point in the musical that I really felt the connection between Daisy and Gatsby. McGinnis and Isaac Powell singing “What is this Worship” as the sassy Gatsby were also lovely and tender with the ensemble.

Another standout is Adam Grupper. His small role as Wolfshiem, who helps catapult Gatsby to the upstart, is superb. Wearing a suit with human molars as cuff links, the veteran Broadway performer (“Into the Woods,” “The Secret Garden”) sang and delivered his song “Feels Like Hell” with precise technique. The choreography of this show by Wolfsheim and the orchestra from stage to staircase is superb.

Cory Jeacoma, Solea Pfeiffer and company members attend the ART world premiere of Gatsby.  (Courtesy of Giulietta Cervantes)
Cory Jeacoma, Solea Pfeiffer and company members attend the ART world premiere of Gatsby. (Courtesy of Giulietta Cervantes)

Sandy Powell’s costume designs elevate the status of this elite world, from contemporary fringed modern dresses to satin trousers and finely crafted suits; hair and wig designer Matthew Armentrout’s impeccable hairstyles ; Tony Gayle (Tony Gayle) and Alan C. Edwards (Alan C. Edwards) designed the excellent sound and lighting design respectively. A huge backdrop depicts the city skyline, with digital raindrops falling for the musical “It’s Downpour.” Then the watchful gaze of the iconic book cover, painted by Spanish artist Francis Cugat, appeared above the stage.

Choreographer Tayeh’s electrifying choreography, including a haunting solo by ensemble member Chris Ralph, and even more subtle moves like a slow dance through fog and headlights Reenacting a car accident is full of beauty.

The hopeful tragic narrative allows the audience to cheer for Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy and the circles she moves into. The lesson is learned too late.

“Gatsby” pulls out all the stops and has a powerful dramatic impact. But as wonderful as the show looks, when it came to the story itself, I struggled to find the emotional resonance I craved.

The American Theater Company’s production of “Gatsby” will be performed on August 3.

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