Friday, July 19, 2024

Isaac Powell as Gatsby and Charlotte MacInnes as Daisy in the American Repertory Theater’s “Gatsby.” (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

When the lights come up on the set of the American Repertory Theater’s “Gatsby,” it’s impossible to ignore the immense mass onstage. Glittering silver streamers surround enormous twists of deformed steel, a visual display of the juxtaposition between the sparkling fantasy of West Egg and the devastating reality of the Valley of Ashes – and the ever-widening chasm between the haves and the have nots.

Mimi Lien’s set is only start in a show that alternately dazzles and devastates. Alan C. Edwards’ lighting is fabulous, transforming the chromium set in each scene, and Sandy Powell’s costuming is detailed and specific, with intricate beading and matching brown stains on the bottoms of the principals’ clothes. Even Sarah Cimino’s makeup design, with a heavily eyeliner ensemble that seems to point to the perils of factory work, is thoughtful. Every piece of “Gatsby” fits together to make it run, not unlike the machinery this industrialization-obsessed society so reveres.

The book by Martyna Majok (“The Cost of Living”) stays largely true to the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, with a few upgrades. Nick (Ben Levi Ross) is still our narrator, a slightly damaged outsider who never quite fits in, but with an added hint of homosexuality. Instead of centering the story exclusively around the love triangle of Daisy (Charlotte MacInnes), Tom (Cory Jeacoma) and Gatsby (Isaac Powell), Majok raises the stakes for everyone in their orbit by bringing Myrtle (Solea Pfeiffer) and Wilson (Matthew Amira) to greater relevance and turning Jordan (Eleri Ward) into a more focused character who acts as a sort of conduit between Nick and the Buchanans.

As the narrative moves, so does the set, with a dynamism that transports us from Daisy and Tom’s dining room to Gatsby’s mansion to Myrtle and Wilson’s humble home with ease. Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett’s soaring music is an equal triumph, with every ounce of Welch’s trademark soulfulness elevated to new Jazz Age heights. The band, placed amid the set high above the stage, support without ever overshadowing. With exceptional choreography by Sonya Tayeh (“Moulin Rouge”), the musical’s best moments are in song, especially the big numbers – “Welcome To The New World” and “Just A Little Party” some of the best among them – that bring the outstanding ensemble to the stage. They move effortlessly between scenes, one minute an undulating mass of partygoers and the next a line of staunch servants who have come to clean it up, and their collective talent in singing and dancing cannot be overstated. Their bodies are essential to the telling of this story, and Tayeh’s choreography is impossible to look away from. The flawless direction by Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) only rarely gives us a second to breathe, similarly ensnaring the audience as soon as the lights go down and not letting go until the curtain call.

The principals are each captivating, with a fluid chemistry that helps make this story believable. Ross captures Nick’s essence, with all his well-meaning candor and boyish charm, and provides some much-needed moments of comic relief. MacInnes brings the house down as Daisy, with a remarkably strong voice and an impressive depth of character development between “Golden Girl,” “I’ve Changed My Mind” and “The Dream Fought On.” The passion she shares with Powell’s Gatsby is palpable, and the sexiness of their mounting tension after years of yearning, especially in “Pouring Down,” helps modernize the story for new audiences.

Myrtle’s increased presence in this adaptation is welcome, and Pfeiffer’s version is unflinchingly raw. Her dynamic with Amira’s well-played Wilson is one of a battle of wills, and she brings a sultriness to her relationship with Tom that Jeacoma answers. Ward’s elevated Jordan is also quite good, with a practiced accent and a knack for stirring the pot without falling into it.

Even if “Gatsby” takes some liberty in its portrayal of the story, the thematic elements are there. The wicked myth of the American dream is established by Adam Grupper’s perfectly cunning Wolfsheim on “Feels Like Hell,” and holds on until it all comes crumbling down at the end. The symbolism isn’t forgotten either – the green light is there, as are the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.

“The Great Gatsby” has long been the subject of adaptations, including one by the same name currently on Broadway, and there’s a certain risk inherent in telling a well-known story. But “Gatsby” succeeds, with a confidence that never falters and a self-assuredness to last through its extended run. It doesn’t lose the original story, but breathes life into it, creating a show that rings hauntingly true even today.

  • “Gatsby,” by Florence Welch, Thomas Bartlett and Martyna Majok and directed by Rachel Chavkin. Presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Mainstage, 64 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, through Aug. 3.