Review: Flashy and Fake ‘Great Gatsby’ Caps a Weak Season

The jazz-based score ventures into funk, Disney princess ballad, and a touch of Britpop. But none of the songs stick, and the staging is busy yet unfocused.

Jeremy Jordan and Eva Noblezada in The Great Gatsby Evan Zimmerman

There’s something almost quaint about The Great Gatsby’s arrival at the end of a crowded Broadway season (11 new musicals and revivals bowed in the past six weeks). This splashy transfer from New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse assumes a market hungry for a semi-faithful adaptation of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel about second lives and broken dreams. Perhaps producers regarded Six and & Juliet as proof of concept: take a literary source or historical footnote, pump it up with dance tunes and quasi-feminism, and rake in the cash. But those shows brazenly deconstruct and dumb down their content for the TikTok–addled hordes; Gatsby, on the other hand, clings to a shred of dignity until, like its title fraudster, it flops into a pool with a bullet in the back.

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Don’t misunderstand me: The Great Gatsby is not a smart, tasteful musical that can’t compete with tackier ones. It simply fails to be tacky enough. The jazz-based score by composer Jason Howland and lyricist Nathan Tysen (Paradise Square) ventures into funk, Disney princess ballad, and a touch of Britpop. Despite the eclecticism of the musical palette, none of the songs stick in the ear, despite strenuous vocalizing by Jeremy Jordan (Newsies) and Eva Noblezada (Hadestown). These attractive Broadway vets portray, respectively, nouveau riche mystery man Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, the girl he loved, who cravenly married the old-money domestic abuser Tom (John Zdrojeski, out-acting everyone on stage). The story—you will know from reading the book or seeing other versions—is narrated by Nick Carraway (Noah J. Ricketts), Daisy’s cousin and Gatsby’s neighbor. Like Gatsby, a veteran of World War I, Nick has a front-row seat to a Jazz-Age New York soaked in bootlegger booze, cynicism, and infidelity. 

Noah J. Ricketts, Sara Chase, and John Zdrojeski in The Great Gatsby. Evan Zimmerman

Adapting the novel for a medium dependent on action and plot, there’s a danger in lifting Gatsby out of the ironic and melancholy filter of Nick’s voice. Ricketts may quote lines from the book at the beginning and end of the show, but for the most part we’re left with raw story elements, and they start to resemble a melodramatic parade of morose, wealthy people cheating on each other and secondary (working-class) characters paying for it. Gatsby manipulates Nick into setting up an affair between him and Daisy; Tom looks down his nose at Gatsby, even as he conducts a sordid affair with Myrtle (Sara Chase), the blowzy wife of Wilson (Paul Whitty) a gas-station owner on Long Island. Wilson is mixed up with the bootlegging operations of Gatsby and gangster Meyer Wolfsheim (Eric Anderson) and suffers from a bad conscience. All this seedy stuff goes down much smoother stirred into a cocktail with Fitzgerald’s velvety prose. 

The burden is on songs to make us care about the protagonists’ inner lives and struggles. But the numbers are so generic, the lyrics so interchangeable, they add little meat to the characters’ bones, simply reinforcing Gatsby as a self-deluded romantic and Daisy as a woman frustrated with the gender limitations of her time. The b-plot involving Nick’s romance with spunky golfer Jordan Baker (Samantha Pauly) gives off comic sparks but goes nowhere when Nick realizes that Jordan is just as selfish and immoral as the rest of her circle. That arc follows the novel, but makes you wish book writer Kait Kerrigan had taken more liberties with the material than simply condensing plot and virtue signaling about the sexism of the times. She excises Tom Buchanan’s odious racism (which even the book mocks) and glosses over the late-revealed story of how James Gatz reinvented himself as Jay Gatsby—the story Nick learns after the great one’s death—which would have made a touching song. Instead, a chorus of gyrating flappers and jazz daddies slink back on to gloat over his death: “Look how he tricked ’em / Now he’s a victim / Well, at least he made a splash / New Money!” 

Noah J. Ricketts and Samantha Pauly in The Great Gatsby. Matthew Murphy

Everyone wants to profit off Gatsby. The novel passed into public domain in 2021; there are bound to be more adaptations, hopefully bolder ones. It’s worth looking to the past for clues. The theater troupe Elevator Repair Service unlocked the classic by performing every word in a seven-hour reading/séance called Gatz. In the exact opposite direction, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann deployed movie stars and hyperkinetic camera work to evoke a fever-dream exaltation of the text. Both versions are infinitely more intelligent and engaging than what’s on at the Broadway Theatre. We await word about another musical take with tunes co-written by Florence Welch trying out in Boston next month. 

Who knows how long this busy yet unfocused Marc Bruni staging can survive in a highly competitive, largely lackluster season. Providing distraction from tepid songs and plodding lyrics there’s eye candy in Paul Tate de Poo III’s gilded sets and copious video projections, and Linda Cho’s glittery costumes. A couple of prop antique cars roll center stage in freshly waxed glory, promising a joy ride that never comes. Those looking for escapism in an oversaturated and underwhelming spring, be warned: The Great Gatsby gets as much mileage as the yellow Rolls-Royce. Flashy body, no engine. 

The Great Gatsby | 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. | Broadway Theatre | 1681 Broadway | 212-239-6200 | Buy Tickets Here  

 

Review: Flashy and Fake ‘Great Gatsby’ Caps a Weak Season