Theater Review: The A.R.T.’s Not-So-Great “Gatsby”

By Martin B. Copenhaver

The creators of Gatsby have fashioned some inventive ways to make the story more contemporary. None of that, however, seems enough to justify the enormous amount of energy and talent that was expended in this production.

Gatsby Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Music by Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett. Lyrics by Florence Welch. Book by Martyna Majok. Choreography by Sonya Tayeh. Staged by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, through August 3.

Isaac Powell (Gatsby) and Charlotte MacInnes (Daisy) in the A.R.T. world premiere staging of Gatsby. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

There is already a musical adaptation of The Great Gatsby on Broadway. In addition, there are at least four other adaptations for the stage, including an “immersive” version that has been playing in London for eight years. Then there are the four major Gatsby films: The first was released in 1926, the year after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book was published, the most recent was released in 2013. Oh, and then there is the novel itself, which has sold 30 million copies worldwide.

This leads to the question: Do we really need another adaptation of this story, Old Sport?

We might want to answer in the affirmative even before the house lights go down at the American Repertory Theater’s Gatsby when we note the veritable Murderer’s Row of talent collaborating on this production. The score is by Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine) and Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman), both stars in their own right in the Indie world. The book is by Martyna Majok, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for her play Cost of Living. The director, Rachel Chavkin, won a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical in 2019 for Hadestown. The pedigree of the cast members is impressive, as well: Isaac Powell (West Side Story) plays Jay Gatsby; Ben Levi Ross (Dear Evan Hansen) is Nick Carraway; Solea Pfeiffer (Eliza in the first national tour of Hamilton) plays Myrtle.

Also, a case could be made that The Great Gatsby is not only timeless, its themes of class divisions, artifice, and the corroded core of the American Dream also make it timely. Nevertheless, there are ways in which our culture looks decidedly different than it did a hundred years ago. To be sure classism and racism — both issues addressed in Fitzgerald’s novel — are as intractable as original sin, but they take different forms over time. The story does not feel particularly contemporary, although the creators behind this production seem determined to make it so.

Some of their efforts succeed. Martyna Majok, who seems to have a particular affinity for portraying working class folk, has given much more attention and nuance to the portrayals of Myrtle and her gas-jockey husband, Wilson, than Fitzgerald does in his novel. For Fitzgerald, they were types; for Majok, they are people worthy of understanding and empathy.

The set design (by Mimi Lien) does not attempt to capture the elegance of Gatsby’s mansion and the opulent parties he throws there. Instead, it is framed by twisted metal that seems to rise out of the stage and grow toward the sky. (Some of the metal is from junked cars, bringing to mind Chekhov’s adage that if there is a loaded rifle on the stage in the first act, it will be fired by the second act.) When the chorus is on stage, dressed in black and silver, often moving together like a single human-driven machine, the effect is less Jazz Age than it is steampunk.

Cory Jeacoma (Tom), Solea Pfeiffer (Myrtle), and members of the company in the A.R.T. world premiere staging of Gatsby. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

With the exception of the occasional beat of a tom-tom or syncopated rhythm, the score does not reflect the influence of jazz — neither of the 1920s variety or more contemporary jazz. Much of the music would not seem out of place in an album by Florence and the Machine. When the chorus sings, it is hard-driving and insistent, sometimes accompanied by some literal head-banging. At such moments it is clear that this is not your grandfather’s Gatsby.

The songs that are most effective provide a sharp departure from this style. Solea Pfeiffer, as Myrtle, is captivating when she sings a steamy and defiant ode to the pursuit of money and power (“Shakin’ Off the Dust”). Adam Grupper, excellent in the role of Wolfsheim — the shady operator who boosted Gatsby in his climb to nouveau-riche status — sings a charming little number complete with a soft-shoe dance step (“Feels Like Hell”). It is the one lighthearted moment in the score, which otherwise is incessantly earnest.

A couple of the lead actors seem miscast. Gatsby is an enigmatic character, but in a way that draws others in. He is fascinating — at least, at first meeting. As Isaac Powell plays Gatsby, however, he is diffident and disengaged. If it weren’t for the pink linen suit he wears, you wouldn’t notice him.

Ben Levi Ross, as Nick, also does not stand out. In this production he is more bystander than narrator. In fact, that may be the biggest challenge for any stage adaptation of Gatsby. In the novel, as the narrator, Nick plays a key role. In some respects, his ambivalence and ruminative nature make him the book’s most interesting character. He is also the only one who seems to grow over the course of the story. But what happens to a narrator when he cannot narrate? He largely fades away. Also, in Fitzgerald’s novel, the narration is where the prose is luminous with vivid detail and turns of phrase — much of which is entirely absent here. Throughout the play I found myself missing Nick, especially when he was onstage, largely demoted to the status of a spectator.

Charlotte MacInnes (Daisy), Isaac Powell (Gatsby), and members of the ensemble in the A.R.T. world premiere staging of Gatsby. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

All in all, I wish this incredibly creative team had collaborated on a different project. To be sure, they found some veins still worth mining in the book. They also fashioned some creative ways to make the story seem more contemporary. None of that, however, seems enough to justify the enormous amount of energy and talent that was expended in this production.

Clearly, this show was produced with an eye (both eyes?) on Broadway. It has that kind of scale and ambition. In recent years the A.R.T. has produced a number of shows that moved successfully to New York (Waitress, Jagged Little Pill, Six, to name a few). In that, they are now filling a role that used to be played by The Colonial Theatre in Boston and the Shubert Theatre in New Haven — a venue for out-of-town tryouts. Clearly, the A.R.T. was founded with larger ambitions than that.

It is important for us to keep this in mind: Broadway would do just fine without the A.R.T. The Boston/Cambridge theater scene, however, will not thrive without a flagship theater company like the A.R.T. keeping its independent creative focus, undistracted by the bright lights and big money of Broadway.


Martin B. Copenhaver, the author of nine books, lives in Cambridge and Woodstock, VT.

4 Comments

  1. Linda O’Brien on June 19, 2024 at 7:48 am

    In total agreement with your final remarks. There’s no repertory left in repertory.

  2. susan delsney on June 19, 2024 at 8:05 am

    That last paragraph is most definitely a barb against the “new” ART, that also sent Glass Menagerie, All the Way, and Pippin to Broadway. So yes, there is that pull. However, prior to DP taking the helm the ART was floundering. It doesn’t seem to be any more. Just sayin’!!

    • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on June 19, 2024 at 8:33 am

      Not sure what you mean by floundering. Artistically? Diane Paulus would beg to differ. She has only positive things to say about the Robert Brustein years and their achievements. Financially? Harvard University supports its theater company with millions, whoever is leading it. The ‘new’ A.R.T. sent the revival of Pippin to Broadway — but also the not-so-boffo revival of 1776.

      As for artistic merit, possibilities are diminished when a company draws its aesthetic boundaries around what will make it on Broadway. Just sayin’!!

  3. Monica Raymond on July 7, 2024 at 11:21 pm

    Definitely agree that with the slighting of the arc of Nick Caraway, this Gatsby finds itself without a real protagonist, someone to identify with and follow. Weirdly, the closest we see to such a character in this iteration is Myrtle (!?) Without Nick’s trajectory from fascination and seduction to disillusion, from NYC glamour to Midwestern stolidity, there doesn’t seem any point to the story. It’s just a kaleidoscope of tabloid scandals. Sad.

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