Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn is well-known for presenting musicals – some old, some new – on a large and lavish scale. Some of them are world premieres, which the producers hope will find a home on Broadway, but very few make it that far. I am pleased to say that Paper Mill’s 85th season opener, a musical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, is one of those with that potential. In fact, The Great Gatsby deserves to move on to wider exposure.
Librettist Kait Kerrigan has adapted Fitzgerald’s novel to the stage, removing the filter of character Nick Carraway’s memories and editorial moralism to allow a more direct look at the events and motives of the characters swept up in its tragic story. Kerrigan’s writing is bolstered by the soaring score by composer Jason Howland and lyricist Nathan Tysen (Paradise Square) and the performances of its stellar cast, directed by Marc Bruni (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical).
The story, for those unfamiliar with the novel, unfolds among the “old money” crowd of Long Island in 1922. Jay Gatsby (Jeremy Jordan), a mysterious nouveau riche millionaire who has built a castle-like house, is known for his weekend-long parties filled with members of the smart set enjoying loud jazz, bootleg booze, sex, and recreational drugs. Nick Carraway (Noah J. Ricketts), a new arrival from the Midwest, is surprised to be offered the use of a cottage on Gatsby’s estate. This puts Nick close to the home of his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Eva Noblezada) and her husband Tom (John Zdrojeski), where he meets Daisy’s friend and amateur golfer Jordan Baker (Samantha Paula). Jordan reveals that Daisy is Gatsby’ lost love from before World War I – and that Tom is having an affair with the low-class Myrtle Wilson (Sara Chase). Complicating matters are Myrtle’s husband, George (Paul Whitty), a dim-witted mechanic, and Meyer Wolfsheim (Stanley W. Mathis), Gatsby’s business partner.
Director Bruni inspires his cast to give what might be considered career-defining performances. In this, he is aided by the fluid movements created by choreographer Dominique Kelley, coming up with stunning visual pictures of bodies in motion; the Art Deco sets and projections of Paul Tate dePoo III, lit by Cory Pattak; and the marvelous period costumes of Linda Cho. Daniel Edmonds conducted the 14-member orchestra, providing a lush musical accompaniment for the tragic, romantic story.
Outstanding numbers in the opulent score include “Roaring On,” which bookends the show with a vision of smart young things feverishly chasing the next sensation; “For Her,” Gatsby’s song of longing for his lost love Daisy; “My Green Light,” in which Gatsby and Daisy express their still-living attraction to each other; “Shady,” Wolfsheim’s sourly realistic view of the times; “Beautiful Little Fool,” Daisy’s bitter recapitulation of other people’s expectations of her; and “God Sees Everything,” George Wilson’s nightmarish epiphany in the face of tragedy.
Everything about this show – from the first view of Gatsby staring across the rippling night waters at the Buchanan home to the curtain calls – reaches out and enchants the audience. It takes us back in time to those heady days in an America that had just won a world war and survived the Spanish flu epidemic, when up was the only possible direction to go and the good times would last forever. In my many years of seeing new musicals premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse, this is one of the few that appear to be ready to move on to bigger stages and delight more audiences. I cannot more strongly urge you to travel to Millburn and spend time in the world of The Great Gatsby!
The Great Gatsby is presented by Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through November 12th. Currently, the show is reported to be sold out, but you can still try for tickets by going to papermill.org or calling 973-376-4343. While I do not have any inside information, if the run were to be extended or additional performances added, an announcement would most likely be sent to those on Paper Mill’s email list, which you can join by going to my.papermill.org/account/create/brief.