Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Great Gatsby
Paper Mill Playhouse
Review by Bob Rendell

Eva Noblezada and Jeremy Jordan
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
The Great Gatsby, a smart, plush new musical adaptation of the generally highly regarded 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same title, is being performed in a gorgeously designed production, and one that is both intelligent and entertaining, at Paper Mill Playhouse. It will surely thrill and delight Paper Mill audiences. Reservations notwithstanding, this Gatsby restores the tradition of the theatrically vivid and insightful productions that have solidified this theatre company's ongoing image and reputation as a plush major regional company, beginning with its post fire 1982 re-opening in a glamorous, expanded, largely new facility.

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 No sooner after there is one take on a character, it is superseded by a new revelation that pulls the rug out from under me.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:

"Can you see through the mist?
Look out this way
Can you see the green light?
Just 'cross the bay
Sometimes it's winking
Sometimes it's warning
Blinking its message to me until morning
It's a lighthouse
It's a signal flare
Stay back, come quick, move on, stay there
Only we know what we're going through
If I save you, will you save me, too?
Can you see through the mist?
Look 'cross the bay
Can you see the green light?
It's yours, daisy fay

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":

"When my husband george proposed to me
I couldn't help but panic
Never in my wildest fantasy did I marry a mechanic
But george he said, "we'll strike it rich
You'll see for I am what you call an up and comer
And so i gave the boy a chance
Prayed he would advance
At least he's not a plumber
When i saw him walking down the aisle
He actually looked cute
I couldn't help but crack a smile
He bought himself a suit!
I let him put a ring on me
And gee he looked so handsome in his bib and tucker
I promised him fidelity for eternity
And boy was i a sucker
It was a second-hand suit!
He wore a second-hand suit on our wedding day

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 or call the box office at 973-376-4343.

Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Book: Kait Kerrigan
Lyrics: Nathan Tysen
Music: Jason Howland
Director: Marc Bruni
Choreographer: Dominique Kelley

Jay Gatsby: Jeremy Jordan
Daisy Buchanan: Eva Noblezada
Myrtle Wilson: Sara Chase
Meyer Wolfsheim: Stanley W. Mathis Jordan Baker: Samantha Pauly
Nick Carraway: Noah J. Ricketts
George Wilson: Paul Whitty
Tom Buchanan: John Zdrojeski
Twins: Ayla Ciccone-Burton, Maya Sistruck
Gilda Gray: Dariana Mullen
Ol' Owl Eyes: Colin Cunliffe
Catherine: Natalie Charle Ellis
Mrs. McKee: Ayla Ciccone-Burton
Mr. McKee: Dan Rosales
Cop: Pascal Pastrana
Additional Ensemble: Raymond Baynard; Austin Colby; Curtis Holland; Maria Reives; Julio Rey; Tanairi Vazquez; Katie Webber