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Review: American Repertory Theater's GATSBY is Great

World premiere production continues at Loeb Drama Center through August 3.

By: Jun. 26, 2024
Review: American Repertory Theater's GATSBY is Great  Image
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The new musical “Gatsby,” being given its world premiere by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge through August 3, isn’t just great, it’s spectacular.

Since it was first published 99 years ago, the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel “The Great Gatsby” has sold some 25 million copies worldwide and inspired feature numerous film and stage adaptations. Since the book entered the public domain in 2021, new treatments have been bubbling up. Indeed, there is a wholly different, unrelated stage adaptation, “The Great Gatsby: A New Musical,” on Broadway right now.

Whether or not the stunning “Gatsby” is headed that way remains to be seen. For now, Boston audiences have a chance to revel in the glory of this fresh reimagining of the familiar story. That’s made clear from the first glimpse of Mimi Lien’s multi-focused set, parts of which may remind some of the famous junkyard from the original 1981 Broadway production of “Cats.” What Lien’s scenic design really offers, however, is a contemporary, brilliantly kaleidoscopic aesthetic.

If you’ve read the book – and hasn’t everyone? – or seen one or more of the feature film adaptations from 1926, 1949, 1974, or 1993 then you know the story, which weaves writer Nick Carraway, the story’s first-person narrator, into the life of mysterious multimillionaire Jay Gatsby and the famously freewheeling parties he hosts at his Long Island estate.

In “Gatsby,” Martyna Majok’s book adds intriguing new dimensions to Fitzgerald’s venerable Jazz Age story, while being sure to keep the heartbreaking love story of the dashing Gatsby (an impressive Isaac Powell) and the often myopic Daisy Buchanan (a fine Charlotte MacInnes) still very much front and center.

The is-he-or-isn’t-he-gay tweaking of the Nick Carraway character only serves to make the young man with the old soul more compelling, and moves Nick from outside observer to insider – in on the action, and open to planting one on another man at a decadent party. As Nick, Ben Levi Ross – remembered by local audiences as the title character in the national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which played Boston’s Citizens Opera House five years ago – is fascinating to watch.

Another update involves the forlorn Myrtle Wilson (an excellent Solea Pfeiffer). In a new plot point, we learn that Myrtle lost a daughter during the 1918 influenza pandemic, upending everything in her life including her dead-end marriage to husband George (an empathetic Matthew Amira). Pfeiffer is both breathtaking and heartbreaking on the powerful act two ballad “What of Love, What of God.”

No besmirching of Fitzgerald’s original text intended, but a more developed Myrtle goes a long way in deepening the story. Also adding interest are Cory Jeacoma, as Daisy’s brusque and uncaring husband Tom, and Eleri Ward as Jordan, a professional golfer and socialite.

With a creative team that can only be described as the best of the best working today – including pop star Florence Welch (Florence + The Machine) as sole lyricist and co-composer, with orchestrator and arranger Thomas Bartlett; and Pulitzer Prize winner Majok whose “Cost of Loving,” was recently produced by Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company as book writer; choreography by Tony Award-winner Sonya Tayeh (“Moulin Rouge!”) and direction by Tony winner Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”).

The score blends the flapper-era 1920s with Welch’s popular indie-rock sensibility. The show’s most affecting musical numbers – “Shakin’ Off the Dust” chief among them – are infused with sex appeal and allure by Powell, whose movements and vocals make his character hard to resist. He is well matched with MacInnes, who offers early character exposition and impressive vocals on “Golden Girl.”

Act one’s “Feels Like Hell” is also a knockout, but for very different reasons. It’s a splendid showcase for the scene-stealing Adam Grupper as Gatsby’s mobbed-up financial backer Meyer Wolfsheim, who prefers doing business in discreet bars rather than at lawn parties. Grupper imbues Wolfsheim with gangster gruffness that carries right through one of the show’s most inspired production numbers.

Chavkin’s richly imagined direction moves the action smoothly, if sometimes too quickly. Character-revealing threads are too often sped past in favor of the show’s broader action. But Tayeh’s sweeping choreography perfectly suits to each moment.

Three-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Aviator,” “The Young Victoria”) burnishes her already sterling reputation here with beautifully tailored suits for the men in colors suggesting refreshing summer sorbets, and lace, satin, and sequins aplenty for the women, and revealing dance club attire for the ensemble.

Powell’s costume design mastery is also evident in the clever incorporation of saltwater stains on pant cuffs and hemlines, perhaps to remind us that the frequent parties the central characters attend not only flow inside and out of Gatsby’s waterfront mansion, but also from day to night. Allen C. Edward’s expert lighting and Tony Gayle’s pitch-perfect sound design further enhance the proceedings.

Photo caption: Ben Levi Ross, in foreground, and the company of “Gatsby.” Photo by Julieta Cervantes.


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