Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

American Repertory Theater
Review by Josh Garstka

Isaac Powell and Charlotte MacInnes
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Much like the enigmatic title character himself, the new musical Gatsby at American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) has been shrouded in mystique ever since it was announced. F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby," the Jazz Age classic of American decadence and decay, recently entered the public domain, and the theatre community has been abuzz over dueling musical adaptations. One is currently running on Broadway, and now, the world premiere of Gatsby (no superlative needed) has just opened at A.R.T.

The creative team is stacked with talent, starting with a highly anticipated score from pop star Florence Welch (of Florence + the Machine) and musician Thomas Bartlett. Director Rachel Chavkin, best known for her work on Hadestown and A.R.T.'s own Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, is on hand, along with bookwriter Martyna Majok, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her play Cost of Living . It's the kind of party our protagonist, Nick Carraway, would love to crash.

Yet, like those raucous nightly revels at the mansion next door, Gatsby is a vibrant, well-polished affair–but the luster is sure to fade by morning. Many of the elements are there, but the musical has not yet found in Fitzgerald's fable of disenchantment a reason to sing.

At the helm, Chavkin re-envisions this well-known story as an American myth (to borrow the musical's promotional tagline). Her directorial approach evokes memories of her work on the Greek myths of Hadestown, beginning with the cast's direct address that invites us into the show ("Welcome to the New World"). Like Hadestown, this story builds to a great tragedy, yet there is catharsis, and hope, in its retelling through a scrappy band of outsiders striving for more. The ensemble hovers around the stage like an omnipresent Greek chorus, giving voice to the unspoken desires percolating beneath the sleek, shiny trappings of wealth and status.

The songs by Welch and Bartlett illuminate these desires through a deliberately modern lens, with a contemporary pop sensibility that bridges the century-wide gap between 1920s America and today. Their score is a driving, rippling force that rarely lets up; there are 25 numbers on the song list. And as sung by a cast of top-notch vocalists, we feel the visceral yearning and heartbreak of characters who are all trapped in their individual prisons. But the nonstop string of ballads starts to feel monotonous, and Welch's lyrics often rest on cliches: "I thought I closed the door / But is there something more?" And: "I thought that I could fly but I was always on the ground."

The best songs are the ones that achieve character specificity. The biggest hand at my performance went to "Feels Like Hell," a traditional "tap your troubles away" soft-shoe number but with a twist of menace, delivered by Gatsby's unsavory business associate Meyer Wolfsheim (the showstopping Adam Grupper).

Similarly, Majok's book closely follows the events of Fitzgerald's novel, sometimes to a fault. In fairness, a lesser adaptation might rest on pretty costumes and empty glamor; this team of creators is clearly motivated to explore the darker and uglier underbelly of the broken American dream. But what works in prose doesn't always translate, especially in the slow-going early scenes, where I found myself waiting for something compelling to grab my attention.

Fortunately, two characters do just that–the doomed lover Myrtle and the eponymous Gatsby. Though outwardly opposites, these two are the most fully realized characters in this adaptation, and benefit the most from the production's overall approach.

Solea Pfeiffer is sensational as Myrtle Wilson, trapped in an unhappy marriage and strung along as the mistress of the loathsome Tom Buchanan. Her home life is miles away from the grandiose mansions of Long Island; she lives in a junkyard, a valley of ashes, loveless and despondent over the loss of her child. Pfeiffer gives Myrtle an urgent vitality, a palpable need to be seen and loved; you can't take your eyes off her. Sinuous and sexual, then heart-wrenchingly vulnerable, Myrtle is the only character whose tragic outcome allows for a moment of true emotional connection.

This adaptation also finds the lost, wounded soul at the center of Isaac Powell's charismatic Jay Gatsby, whose lavish soirees are the talk of the town. Powell has the style and swagger down, yet the artifice is clear: he's intriguingly boyish, like a kid playing dress-up in someone else's clothes. Powell finds this alchemy of charisma and vulnerability in his star solo that concludes the first act: "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere." This Gatsby keeps us guessing: even when he opens up, are we hearing the real truth? Or is he bluffing the audience, too?

But many of Fitzgerald's upper-crust characters, in their transition to the stage, don't seem fully realized. Gatsby's long-lost love Daisy, through no fault of actress Charlotte MacInnes, is spoiled and impulsive and hard to care about, and her romance with Gatsby ignites few sparks. Tom Buchanan (Cory Jeacoma) is two-dimensional, a buffoon and odious racist from the jump. The wry and stylish Jordan Baker (Eleri Ward) gets lost in the shuffle.

And our narrator Nick Carraway, the young Midwesterner who moves to New York in search of life, often watches from the sidelines. Played here by the genial Ben Levi Ross, Nick is an outsider like us to this hedonistic world. Where this adaptation finds something new is in his implicit desire for the mysterious man next door. "There was something gorgeous about him," Nick Carraway says of Gatsby, and the allure is clear in their first meeting: a moment of quiet seduction in the midst of all the excess.

Even the physical production, like the musical numbers, seeks to bridge the Jazz Age with a contemporary aesthetic, but the results are mixed. Mimi Lien's scenic design is unwieldy: a metallic mashup of broken-down car parts, Art Deco staircases, and Party City streamers. Arena lighting pulses from the back wall. In trying to merge these styles together, the set looks tacky and too busy, out of kilter with the open-hearted yearning of Welch and Bartlett's score. Sandy Powell's costumes are more effective; the main cast is clad in crisp whites and sumptuous pinks and reds, but rusted at the hem as if anticipating their eventual decay. The gender-bending blacks of the ensemble are also striking, although some of the cast look like they just finished a matinee of Chicago.

The Gatsby creative team is not the first to mine Fitzgerald's novel for a bold new interpretation, and they won't be the last. There's something about this story, and the efficacy with which it critiques an era of bloated wealth and reckless abandon, that inspires re-invention. But like the elusive host who hides away from his own guests, this musical keeps us at an emotional distance. While the talent and craft on display are undeniable, the party never fully roars to life.

Gatsby runs through August 3, 2024, at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St, Cambridge MA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 617-547-8300.

Matthew Amira (Wilson)
Adam Grupper (Wolfsheim)
Cory Jeacoma (Tom)
Charlotte MacInnes (Daisy)
Solea Pfeiffer (Myrtle)
Isaac Powell (Gatsby)
Ben Levi Ross (Nick)
Eleri Ward (Jordan)
Ensemble: Nick Bailey, Kailey Boyle, Runako Campbell, Jada Clark, Joshua Grosso, Alex Haquia, Gabriel Hyman, Matt Kizer, Lorenzo Pagano, Christopher Ralph, Christopher M. Ramirez, Shea Renne, Aliza Russell, Shota Sekiguchi, Maya Sistruck

Creative Team:
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Music by Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett
Lyrics by Florence Welch
Book by Martyna Majok
Choreography: Sonya Tayeh
Music Supervisor: Kimberly Grigsby
Orchestrations and Arrangements: Thomas Bartlett
Additional Orchestrations: Sally Herbert, Thomas Burhorn
Scenic Design: Mimi Lien
Costume Design: Sandy Powell
Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards
Sound Design: Tony Gayle
Hair and Wig Design: Matthew Armentrout
Make-Up Design: Sarah Cimino
Creative Consultant: Jeanie O'Hare
Dramaturg: Nissy Aya Fight and Intimacy Director: Rocío Mendez
Music Director: Wiley DeWeese Associate Choreographer: Camden Gonzales Associate Director: Keenan Tyler Oliphant Production Stage Manager: Aaron Elgart Production Consultant: Jhanaë Bonnick