By Ruth Ross
Having taught The Great Gatsby for 20 years to high school students—re-reading it each year in preparation—I am intimately acquainted with the novel, its characters, its themes and its language. So, it was with a mixture of high hopes and trepidation that I went to see the current musical iteration produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse.
With its gorgeous scenery evocative of the Jazz Age, spangly costumes, lush melodies and energetic dancing, this world premiere production, with book by Kait Kerrigan, music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Nathan Tysen, follows the plot quite closely. However, the production lacks the novel’s driving force: a Daisy Fay Buchanan who is the raison d’etre for Jay Gatsby’s prodigious lengths to win her back five years after he left for war—even though she is married and has a child. Part of this, I think, has to do with casting, but the role as written isn’t very inspiring.
Set on Long Island in the summer of 1922 and narrated by Daisy’s Midwestern cousin Nick Carraway, the plot follows the trajectory of mysterious, wealthy bootlegger Jay Gatsby to reconnect with Daisy, an old-moneyed Southern belle whom he met at a dance during basic training before being shipped off to serve in the Great War. To achieve this goal, he rents Nick a cottage on his West Egg estate for peanuts, throws lavish and loud parties every weekend and gets Nick to invite Daisy to tea at the cottage where Gatsby just “happens” to show up. (L-R: Noah J. Ricketts, John Zdrojeski, Eva Noblezada and Sara Chase celebrate being "So Sophisticated."
The plan works; he and Daisy—whose husband Tom Buchanan is cheating on her with Myrtle Wilson, the wife of a gas station owner in Queens’ “Valley of Ashes” industrial zone—embark on a torrid affair, only to have it blow up in their faces with a hit-and-run accident that kills Myrtle, ends in Gatsby’s untimely demise (read: murder) and Daisy and Tom’s sudden, middle-of-the-night flight without a word of farewell. With that, Nick returns to his Minnesota hometown, seeking peace and quiet after experiencing such scandalous events.
I was pleased that the playwright included so many phrases and details from the novel, even if they appeared at different points in the timeline from the book. Yet I wish she had shown us what it was about Daisy that attracted Gatsby—beyond her looks—and more than a few seemingly offhand remarks about his real origins, pertinent information to understand his attraction for and desire to reclaim Daisy.
Evidently, casting involved the choice to make this a diverse cast, so that the Jewish gangster who is Gatsby’s “mentor,” Meyer Wolfsheim is played by black actor Stanley M. Mathis, who does a fine job as a sleazy yet slick influence in Gatsby’s life (“Everybody is a tiny bit shady,” he intones). Another actor of color, Noah J. Ricketts, portrays Nick (right) as a wide-eyed Midwesterner whose head is turned by the opulence around him; his singing and dancing chops are evident in the opening and closing numbers (“Roaring On”) and in a high-energy visit to the Met!
As emancipated flapper-golfer Jordan Baker, (Samantha Pauly left, with Ricketts) has the appropriate moxie to command the stage whenever she appears and manages to get Nick to fall in love with her quite precipitously (an affair that is only hinted at in the novel). She, too, sings and dances superbly, leading Nick and the ensemble in an anthem to “New Money” and a tender duet with Nick entitled “Better Hold Tight.” John Zdrojeski's Tom Buchanan is white, wealthy privilege personified, although the script doesn’t reveal the full extent of his racial views. As his paramour Myrtle Wilson, Sara Chase is suitably vulgar, loud, sexy—the antithesis of the more refined Daisy—who bemoans her spouse’s wearing of a “Secondhand Suit” to their wedding, a faux pas that lessened him in her eyes and that she uses to justify her infidelity. In contrast, Paul Whitty’s George Wilson is a clueless dolt, buying Myrtle’s excuses to visit her sister in NYC and allowing Wolfsheim to use his filling station to store illegal alcohol. He’s quite a contrast to the more urbane denizens of tony East Egg, and a heck more sympathetic.
Jeremy Jordan and Eva Noblezada share the spotlight as the main protagonists of the tale. Jordan is brilliant as Jay Gatsby, veering from polished, confident, albeit reclusive, host of crowded parties to nervous swain preparing Nick’s cottage for tea and anxious about meeting Daisy face-to-face again. The extent of his yearning is obvious in his soulful renditions of “For Her” and “The Past Is Catching Up with Me,” which reveal his modus operandi for his actions over the past five years and, especially, the summer of ’22. He is a joy to watch and personifies the Gatsby in my head as I re-read the novel each year!
Unfortunately, Noblezada’s portrayal of Daisy falls short for several reasons. Oh, she can sing (if a bit screechy at times) and dance, but Director Marc Bruni has failed to coax a riveting performance from her. She whines about Tom’s infidelities but fails to convey why men, Nick included, are fascinated by her (they draped Chicago in black when she left, Nick says). Nor does she look like a flapper; her hair is softly feminine, and her dresses don’t scream the Twenties. Noblezada is probably a fine actor, but she’s not well suited to the role.
What really works in this production are the sets and projections (Paul Tate dePoo III), costumes (Linda Cho), choreography (Dominique Kelley), sound (Brian Ronan) and lighting (Cory Pattak). Big bucks must’ve been spent on the scenery, and it shows. The Buchanan manse resembles Rosecliff, the Newport mansion featured in the first film version of the novel), complete with an allée of trees and majestic façade. The billboard advertising Oculist Dr. T. J. Eckelberg’s looms over the Valley of Ashes, and Myrtle and Tom’s hideaway apartment’s tackiness befits an illicit affair between two social unequals. Gatsby’s mansion is over-the-top glitz and gold, and public settings are reminiscent of the brass Art Deco adornments at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. There’s genius in the projections that give the impression of traveling over a bridge from Long Island to the city; we really feel as if the car is moving! And those cars! Without giving away too much, let’s just say they are mind-boggling! (Above L-R: Ricketts, Sara Chase, John Zdrojeski drive to Manhattan)
And, because this is a musical, it’s worth noting that, while some rhymes are predictable (loyalty-royalty, there-where), the melodies reflect the Jazz Age sound, and the lyrics convey the inner and outer lives of the characters involved in this perversion of the American Dream. You may not come out of the theater humming the tunes, but you’ll tap your toes while watching and be exhilarated by the musicality. Daniel Edmonds is to be commended for his fine musical direction; the orchestra never overpowers the actors onstage.
The Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of this musical version of The Great Gatsby has much to recommend it: gaudiness, glamour, sex, music, frenetic dance, danger, crime—just the ingredients needed to portray the post-World War I era when the entire world seemed to go crazy. A noble effort to bring a complex novel to life, it is worth seeing. Whether it will transfer to Broadway remains to be seen, but despite some reservations, I give it a Green Light!
The Great Gatsby will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through November 12. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit www.papermill.org online.