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GATSBY at A.R.T. in Cambridge, MA

Blessedly, the musical version The Great Gatsby” that premiered at the American Repertory Theater (A R. T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts - simply called “Gatsby - is everything the version on Broadway is not: creatively innovative with Fitzgerald’s story; boldly astute in theme; replete with an unexpectedly rich, modern score; and, disarmingly original in production design and choreography. Its quality - and ambition - is akin to a versatile range of shows developed at A.R.T that have found their way to Broadway, including the revivals of “Pippin” and 1776” and original shows like, “Waitress" and “Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”.

The production designed by Mimi Lien (Tony Award for “Comet of 1812”) looks unusual. With a visual nod to the story’s tragic event and dark theme, the fixed set is a large junk heap of car wrecks. The 13-piece orchestra is perched atop it unobtrusively on one side; on the other is a huge spiral staircase for scenes in the mansions of Gatsby and his neighbors Tom and Daisy Buchanan. For scenes between the impoverished Myrtle and auto mechanic husband Wilson, a shack of drab room moves in from stage right.

Unexpected, too, are striking costumes by Sandy Powell: instead of traditional clothing of the 1920’s, Powell’s costumes are exaggerated period fashions full of irony or symbolism. Nick’s oversized suit jacket could be a Zoot suiters, a baggy fashion style of Black hipsters of the period). Daisy’s white ensembles connote her being an ingenue, which this version of Gatsby makes plain she is not. Myrtle’s flaming red dress connotes passion (“the scarlet woman”) and Gatsby’s pink suit compassion; the emotions of both lead to their ruin. The ensemble, which functions as a Greek chorus, is costumed in hard-edged, black and silver, Art-Deco inspired fashions; rather than celebrating the glitter of the Jazz Age, they accentuate debauched glitz.

The incisive book by 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok (for “Cost of Living”) places Fitzgerald’s characters in dramatic relief through social context. Majok moves Myrtle's story forward, revealing similarities with Jay Gatsby. The impoverished Myrtle, bereft from the loss of a young son from the flu epidemic of 1918-19 (she blames Wilson for being “too poor” to get him treatment) wants out of her marriage; she deludes herself into a future with the obnoxious, wealthy Tom Buchanan. Gatsby’s past is enigmatic; he too wants to leave it behind for an idyllic future with Daisy. His dream proves delusional too.

Using a populist lens, playwright Majok emphasizes how Myrtle and Daisy are worlds apart, defined by their social class. Myrtle is a loser in an unfair economic and social structure; in contrast, the privileged Daisy is the top of the social heap, immune to the financial vagaries of real life. Majok’s book also astutely brings to the surface the subtext in the personality of Nick and his would-be romantic partner, the golfer Jordan: Nick (besides bearing some PTSD from his WWI experience) is homosexual, Jordan fluid. In the context of the time, they are oddities, never really fitting in.

The casting is superb. Isaac Powell (Tony in Ivo van Hove’s version of “West Side Story”) as Gatsby and Charlotte MacInnes as Daisy generate sexual energy. Ben Levi Ross (who’s had the lead in “Dear Evan Hansen”) brings a delicate blend of naivete and cynicism to the role of Nick. All of the cast are magnificent vocalists, but the standout is Solea Pfeiffer as Myrtle, who deserves the five big numbers she solos or leads.

These character dynamics are amplified by a most original, modern score by Florence Welch, who also wrote lyrics, and Thomas Bartlett. Welch is best known as the frontwoman of Florence + the Machine. Bartlett, also known as Doveman, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song for the film “Call Me by Your Name”. The team has composed nearly two dozen numbers, two reprised, many involving the ensemble as chorus. The score is not banal Broadway ballad, but rather a mix of popular genres, with orchestrations that are often dissonant, congruent with the mise-en-scene and theme, peppered with quirky lyrics.

Quirky, too, is the choreography of Sonya Tayeh, who won a Tony for “Moulin Rouge”. Her movements are angular, sharp and hard-edged, and at first seem odd. About halfway through Act I bursts a modern take on the Charleston, the popular dance associated with the Jazz Age; it’s a eureka moment, when one recognizes that the dance, like much of this “Gatsby’ is interpretive.

Orchestrating all of this ambitious telling of a great American novel is director Rachel Chavkin (Tony Award for “Hadestown”). She brings it all to an emotional musical finale aptly called “Beat On’". The cast and ensemble in rousing chorus remind us of all our human aspirations and failures as did Fitzgerald - “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald, I think, would approve. SB

This review was written for “Blickpunkt Musical” the German magazine on international musical theater for which Mr. Dwyer is U.S. reviewer.

at A.R.T. in Cambridge, MA


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