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And So We Bleat On: “The Great Gatsby” reviewed

Cars and the men and women driving them are a major theme of The Great Gatsby, now a major new musical playing at the Broadway Theatre. And that’s fitting; ever since the production’s fall run at the Paper Mill Playhouse broke records to become the venue’s biggest moneymaker, the team hit the accelerator on move to The Great White Way. Yet despite all the money involved – and this production goes out of its way to show it – this new musical is only a superficial retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald masterpiece.

This flashy adaptation (another one is forthcoming one A.R.T., thanks to the Fitzgerald source material now being in the public domain) skims the surface of the novel, with book writer Kait Kerrigan, composer Jason Howland, and lyricist Nathan Tysen taking the glitzy elements of the Roaring Twenties, eschewing much of Fitzgerald’s cultural commentary, and then filtering the story through a very 2024 prism that must only vaguely resemble the 1922 to which Fitzgerald bore witness.

Nick Carraway (Noah J. Ricketts), fresh from the Midwest and new to Long Island, remains the narrator; he’s the connective tissue between Jay Gatsby (Jeremy Jordan), his enigmatic and wealthy landlord in West Egg, and his distant cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Eva Noblezada), who lives in nearby East Egg. As most will remember, the two have their own direct connection as well: once upon a time, a poorer Gatsby tried to woo Daisy in Louisville, but he went off to war, and she wed the rich, coarse, classist cheater  Tom Buchanan (John Zdrojeski, the only performer delivering an inside-out, character-based performance and the true standout of the show), who is having a pretty open affair with Myrtle Wilson (Sara Chase).

Kerrigan filets this adaptation in order to give it a feminist spin: In songs like “Absolute Rose” and “Beautiful Little Fool,” Daisy bemoans the limitations placed on women in society as a means of excusing any misbehavior, which ranges from neglectful to adulterous to homicidal. She broadens Tom to brutishness and scrubs away Jay’s backstory of reinvention, all the better to sympathize with Daisy and glamorize Jay. Meanwhile, she knocks Nick down a peg and bumps golfer friend Jordan Baker (Samantha Pauly, dressed in pantsuits to suggest independence, but donning some very mod 1960s wigs) up a notch to put them on an even level and make them the musical’s B-couple, canoodling all while Jordan insists on swearing off the institution of marriage.

But romanticizing Daisy and Jay can only happen by minimizing them – Jordan, replete with an oddly affected mid-Atlantic accent, is absent or silent for much of the first act, and Noblezada has little do in the second one, even as Daisy becomes the fulcrum on which the most significant events pivot. They only share a handful of scenes together, one of which – a tea party meeting Jay has asked Nick to schedule so he can surprise Daisy – is played incredulously broadly in order to suggest Jay’s fraying nerves. Jay is not a timid, uncertain character. While well-sung, his biggest number, “For Her,” reduces him to a pining weenie.

Director Marc Bruni’s slavish adherence to romanticism certainly looks good. The prolific Paul Tate dePoo III’s scenic design includes a wave of sliding panels and billboards that come in from all sides to portray lavish locales like the Buchanan and Gatsby mansions as well as the Wilsons’ Queens gas station and a flophouse where tom and Myrtle can carry on. Big dance numbers choreographed by Dominique Kelley impress, with multiple tap numbers – although I’m not sure they would have done the jitterbug, which came about in the 1930s. And the season of cars onstage continues: following Back to the Future, Lempicka, and The Outsiders, Gatsby’s yellow Rolls-Royce and Tom’s blue coupe drive onstage with the seeming precision of a Disney ride.

But should the big takeaway be Gatsby’s glitz? Should we root for Jay and Daisy, or mourn their doomed romance, instead of tsk-tsking their destructive tendencies? Fitzgerald’s novel was always about corruption and complicity, about what lurked beneath the surface of New Money, the Jay-Daisy-Tom-Myrtle quadrangle a McGuffin  for the author’s (and Nick’s) cloaked contempt for post-war high society – Bruni’s musical wants to celebrate them.

And in flattening the story down in order to poke holes for musical numbers, the more serious storylines appear frivolous. Take, for example, the grotesque portrayal of Myrtle and her estranged husband, George (Paul Whitty), or Eric Anderson, who, as fixer Meyer Wolfsheim, must open the second act with “Shady,” a big chorus number that makes light of his at Jay’s illegal business transactions and the soap opera-like relationships occurring by tossing in a kick-line. It’s a shame no one approached this adaptation more cautiously. The green light that so famously appears in this work seems to say “Go.” It’s too bad that no one involved with this production chose to yield with any sense of caution.

The Great Gatsby
Broadway Theatre