The Great Gatsby: An Immersive Theatrical Production (Viral Ventures)
75 Longland Street, Newstead
September 18 – December 18
Despite only being nine chapters long, a lot happens in F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Jazz Age novel, “The Great Gatsby”. This might make it rich for at-school study of its commentary on a different age and its universal human follies, but it increases the challenge of bringing the story to the stage, especially in an adapted, immersive form. The team at Viral Ventures are embracing this challenge with “The Great Gatsby: An Immersive Theatrical Production” which invites its audience members to enter the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel through a repurposed and stunningly re-invented two-story industrial warehouse in Newstead. Instead of is old retail shopfront, warehouse, upstairs office and outside carpark, the building has been transformed into a series of spaces that chronologically represent the novel’s key locations, including a ‘ballroom’ for Gatsby’s two parties. The meticulous design ensures that every nook and cranny of the cavernous space is rich in its detail; even the bathrooms are art-deco’d from floor to ceiling.
It begins with Midwest native and would-be writer Nick Carraway (Michael Cameron) who has arrived in 1922 New York in search of the American dream. After moving in to a little West Egg shack next door to the grand mansion of newly rich enigma Jay Gatsby (Rijen Laine) and across the bay from his superficial second cousin Daisy (Aleisha Rose) and her philandering husband, Tom (Joshua McElroy), he becomes drawn into the world of the wealthy serving as a confidant for others and facilitator of a romantic rekindling between Daisy and Gatsby. As he begins to tell the sometimes emotionally charged story, reflecting upon the still-confusing experience as bystander of events that summer 100 years ago, things morph into us inhabiting the character of Nick ourselves, with actors referring to everyone and occasionally interacting with us as him.
Though mostly we follow the same story’s path through Nick’s eyes, there are times when scenes branch off choose-your-own-adventures style, allowing for different, unique experiences even for those in the same audience group. While I remain to witness interaction between the Tom and his mistress Myrtle Wilson (Lou P Scarlett), who is herself married to garage owner George (Cody Ross), my guest is off being led astray by aloof and alluring professional golfer Jordan (a delightful Hannah Raven).
Richly textured spaces recreate not just the look, but also the feel of the story’s locations. An early stop captures the lightness of the breezy Buchanan’s East Egg estate in which Daisy and Jordan recline amid billowing curtains, until the air is heavied by the phone call to Tom from Myrtle. The roaring 20s ballroom of Gatsby’s parties is certainly impressive, with its tall chandeliers and giant crescent moon, however, as someone who is very familiar with the source material, I found the lavishness of the flowered room in which Gatsby reunites with his beloved Daisy, to be the most memorable. Of like feature, the Harlem apartment of mistress Myrtle is overstuffed in its giddy nook and cranny gaudiness and the Plaza Hotel setting of confrontation between Tom and pink-suited Gatsby is appropriately plush.
Beth Daly’s direction ensures that the action is engaging to all as we get up close and personal with everything. Scenes are fluid with dialogue often continuing in transit to other locations, such as alert of an accident as we then pass by its victim outside. All of the story’s quotable lines and iconic moments are incorporated as Gatsby flings his symbolic beautiful shirts in the air, reclines against a mantelpiece to tip a clock from its resting place and defies Nick’s assertion that you can’t repeat the past.
There is no glaring Dr T.J. Eckleburg billboard hovering over the impoverish Valley of the Ashes, but, there is a guiding green light, effectively introducing us to our eponymous tragic hero, observed at a distance, with hands outstretched towards its promise. And Gatsby’s look to Daisy’s window in wait of a sign from her towards the story’s conclusion, is similarly cleverly incorporated. Tying everything together is a spectacular genre-bending soundtrack of Postmodern Jukebox type reworks of modern songs by Lady Gaga and alike with a jazz styling, which facilitates the singing, tap dancing and burlesque performances that are integral to the carnivalesque atmosphere of Gatsby’s parties.
The immersion never stops. Though the parties become somewhat of an intermission, where the audience can mingle and purchase drinks like the green light cocktail special, interaction continues after Meyer Wolfsheim’s (a charismatic James Lee) welcome as actors mingle and dance away with us to the live music (including from our usher, Producer Aaron Robuck on piano), never once breaking from their characters.
Of particular note within the ensemble cast is Laine as the mysterious Jay Gatsby and Rose as the delicate Daisy Buchanan. Laine is mythically statuesque in his first white-suited appearance to Nick as the only invited guest at his party. However, his assured hand-in-his-pocket leisurely movement is replaced by fidgety reaction to the story’s climax when he demands that Daisy tell Tom she never loved him. And Rose moves easily from the abandon of her privileged life to trembled anticipation upon seeing long-ago love Gatsby awkwardly standing in her cousin Nick’s house. McElroy, meanwhile is appropriately hulkish as the hyper-masculine Tom, showcasing a brash physicality in his interaction with others, as well as an impressive accent.
The tragic tale of “The Great Gatsby” is arguably, a definitive masterpiece of American literature. To experience it intimately (each show only hosts a maximum of 37 guests) for almost three hours is a very special treat. Indeed, its overflowing world of extravagance, romance, rendezvous and bootleg soirees, is well work checking out old sport, as reminder of why “The Great Gatsby” is.