Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The Great Gatsby
Gatsby is mostly set in the lake-sharing, filthy-rich Long Island towns of West Egg (new money) and East Egg (old money), with forays into New York City. It is told to us by Nick Carraway, a well-off war veteran who has come east from Minnesota to try to establish himself as a bond-selling banker. Nick has rented a considerably underpriced West Egg cottage, which is contiguous to a garish mansion owned by the mysterious, likely nouveau riche Jay Gatsby. No one seems to know Gatsby's background or from where he has derived his wealth. However, Gatsby is the area's most vaunted individual as a result of the incredibly generous, garish, way over the top weekly parties he throws (but barely attends) to which most every Egger craves an invitation.
In nearby East Egg, Carraway's charismatic cousin Daisy lives with her husband Tom Buchanan and their baby daughter. Buchanan is a nasty piece of goods whose inherited wealth enables him to lead a totally self-indulgent life devoted to debauchery and polo ponies. Often living with them is Daisy's best girlfriend, Jordan Baker, a jaded, cynical feminist-thinking professional golfer.
Also figuring prominently in the action are George Wilson, the ambitious owner of a nearby gas station; his sexy, avaricious and ambitious, whorish wife, Myrtle; and Meyer Wolfsheim, a shady Jewish gangster. Rather inexplicably, six of the above drive together to New York City's Plaza Hotel during Gatsby's melodramatic climax.
I have reservations regarding the original novel, as Fitzgerald keeps throwing out material that prevents me from getting a bead on his creations. No sooner after there is one take on a character, it is superseded by a new revelation that pulls the rug out from under me. The progression of revelations defies believability. Their contradictory facets are completely unbelievable to me. Furthermore, Carraway ultimately strikes me as a smug, judgmental, self-satisfied version of Fitzgerald virtue signaling. And, please, don't tempt me to discuss the symbolism of the "eyes of God" references. Note that when published in 1925, Gatsby was a critical and commercial failure with mixed reviews and fewer than 20,000 copies sold. It was only after his death in 1940 that it came to be re-evaluated.
Kait Kerrigan's book for the musical improves on Fitzgerald's original (i.e., the manner and moment in which Carraway learns the true nature of Buchanan). It would only be fair to note that as unbelievable as I find the characters and actions, Gatsby offer a lot to digest and think about. Thus, while I do not find the character development believable, their presentation here is not boring.
The music by Jason Howland and lyrics of Nathan Tysen too often verge on singsong recitative and overly rhymed cutesy rhythms. Much of the music is entertainingly bombastic but largely lacks sufficient depth and melodic beauty. At times, it felt as if I were watching Sunset Boulevard sans the genius of Andrew Lloyd Webber. There is also a plethora of ballads which in total lack the melodic quality to justify their considerable elongation of the first act.
On the other hand, the first act finale, "My Green Light," has great power and beauty that transcend the balance of the score, but the lyrics do not quite do their job. Judge for yourself:
The major delight of The Great Gatsby is its visual production. When I first encountered such projections 49 years ago, I was convinced that they were the future of musical theatre, as this technology overcame technologic limitations. Today, there seems to be no limitation to the fluidity, beauty, size, variety, color, and affordable lavishness which projections provide. Here, scenic and projection designer Paul Tate de Tate (aided by lighting designer Cory Pattak) has employed them to magnificent effect. The lavish mansions and their surroundings are of apiece as he employs panels, lamps, projections, and lighting largely colored in stunning gold and black, with subtle additions of other colors which enhance differing moods and locations. When scenes occur in less glamorous settings, the dominant unifying color is a dark red, which anchors sturdy, neat sets while maintaining an appropriately plain, pleasingly neat and solid look. Furthermore, there are moving projections that provide stunning moving backgrounds. A car ride into New York City spanning several bridges and neighborhoods is as thrilling as a first class roller coaster ride. Most thrilling of all, the sets and projections are so magnificently integrated that it is difficult, even at times impossible, to discern where the physical sets and projections begin or end. For me, the physical production is the best reason not to miss this Gatsby.
Director Marc Bruni has smoothly and sure-handedly directed this large, complicated, energetic production. Each member of his cast performs well, but the shifting behaviors of the characters make it impossible for them to emotionally engage us.
The very star presence and vocal power of Jeremy Jordan (Jay Gatsby) and Eva Noblezada (Daisy Buchanan), and the joy audiences will find in their robust vocal performances cannot be minimized. They are making this a don't miss, thrilling evening in the theatre for many.
John Zdrojeski (Tom Buchanan) is a strong and convincingly hateful villain. Samantha Pauly (Jordan Baker) and Noah J. Ricketts (Nick Carraway) perform well in roles that come across as a continuation of the secondary couple roles in old-fashioned operettas and musical comedies.
Benefiting from the most consistent major roles are Paul Whitty (George Wilson) and Sara Chase (Myrtle Wilson). Early on, Chase brings life to Gatsby with the lively, funny, and character-defining "Second Hand Suit":
The Great Gatsby at the Paper Mill Playhouse. It's likely that you will be very happy to be there.
The Great Gatsby runs through November 12, 2023, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Evenings: Wednesday-Saturday 7:30 p.m.; Sunday 7 p.m./ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 p.m.. For tickets and information, please visit papermill.org or call the box office at 973-376-4343.