If you saw the musical version of “The Great Gatsby” that is currently having its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, without any knowledge of the 1925 novel it is based on, it might be hard to convince you that that novel is considered a classic of American literature. The musical has its strengths, including stunning visuals and soaring, irresistibly compelling ballads sung by its two main characters, Jay Gatsby (Jeremy Jordan) and Daisy Buchanan (Eva Noblezada). But the depth of characterization that the novel’s writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, created, is lost in the translation. Gatsby and Daisy seem more like standard-issue star-crossed lovers than unique, enigmatic characters.
“Daisy, I need one more chance/Am I chasing a dream?/I will know at a glance,” sings Gatsby.
“I see an open door at last/That could lead me to a future/That I gave up in the past,” sings Daisy, in a different song.
The musical’s creative team (book writer Kait Kerrigan, composer Jason Howland, lyricist Nathan Tysen and director Marc Bruni) may not win over theater critics who used to be English majors. But they, their strong-voiced, Tony-nominated leading man and woman, and everyone else involved in this take on “The Great Gatsby” have created a big, glitzy crowd-pleaser of a show. It is currently packing the house nightly in Millburn and could very well generate similar responses elsewhere.
Adding to the wow factor is the gorgeous Art Deco-inspired set design by Paul Tate dePoo III that creates a sense of high-society elegance, dePoo’s equally gorgeous projections, and choreography by Dominique Kelley (including the requisite tap-dancing number) that echoes the frenzied spirit of the Roaring Twenties. Just don’t go to see this musical expecting to experience anything like the depth of the novel.
The plot follows Fitzgerald’s template closely.
“I don’t know ’bout you, but I’m done with Spanish Flu,” sings Gatsby at the start of the Long Island- and Manhattan-set musical. There is a second mention of the then-just-ended pandemic as well. It’s a clever touch, drawing a similarity between our current post-pandemic time period and what was going on in 1922.
Gatsby’s opening comments lead into a production number, “Roaring On,” that establishes the musical’s frivolity-filled backdrop: “Today is never over if the party never stops … when the party’s over, can you find another party somewhere?” sings the ensemble.
We meet Daisy; her innocent cousin Nick (Noah J. Ricketts), freshly arrived from Minnesota, suitcase in hand; Daisy’s rich, insensitive husband Tom (John Zdrojeski); and Daisy’s friend Jordan (Samantha Pauly), who is a golf pro and a wisecracking cynic, and quicky becomes Nick’s love interest.
(Jordan has the musical’s wittiest line, taken directly from the novel: “I like large parties. They’re so intimate.
At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”)
Gatsby is still pining for Daisy, with whom he was romantically involved before serving in the military in World War 1. Actually, “pining” is too weak a word: He is obsessed with her.
Daisy still loves Gatsby, too, and her marriage to Tom is an unhappy one. But she has a daughter with Tom, and feels she can’t just leave. “I built a home, where I can’t run away/And filled it up with all the reasons I should stay,” she sings.
Other major characters include Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Sara Chase); Myrtle’s unsophisticated, gas station-owning husband George (Paul Whitty); and Meyer Wolfsheim (Stanley W. Mathis), a gangster who may have something to do with the extreme wealth that the once-poor Gatsby has been able to accumulate.
The story ends tragically, of course, and the final, poetic passage, spoken by Nick, is borrowed directly from the novel (it ends with “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”).
And then we get a reprise of that opening song, which now takes on an ironic twist: “Where’s the party and can you take me there?/And when the party’s over, can you find another party somewhere?”
The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn presents “The Great Gatsby” though Nov. 12. Visit papermill.org.
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