I’m sitting in the Union Theatre bar with a glass of Merlot, and within a matter of seconds I am transported back to the Roaring Twenties. Members of the ensemble cast burst into the foyer, drunk on carelessness and brimming with vivacious chatter. They interact with those present in the bar, gossiping as if making small talk with acquaintances at a party, their committed performances informing the audience that Gatsby has begun, even before the auditorium doors have been opened.
Gatsby (with a book written by director Linnie Reedman) is a stage reworking of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It aims to present the events of the narrative through the eyes of Meyer Wolfsheim (the protagonist’s mentor in business and gambling) yet this musical production is less of a re-working of Fitzgerald’s notorious metaphor for twenties culture, and is rather a translation of the narrative into a musical theatre performance. Whilst Wolfsheim is given more prominence in Gatsby than in the original text, his character is not central, and the show follows the well-known narratively accurately – almost religiously.
However, the fact that this musical is more faithful to the original story of Jay Gatsby than it claims to be is not to the detriment of the engaging performances – quite the opposite. Those in the audience familiar with Fitzgerald’s work are delighted to witness their favourite characters come to life, and to hear them deliver direct, notorious quotations both from The Great Gatsby itself, and other Fitzgerald publications. This being said, one does not need to be a devoted Fitzgerald aficionado to enjoy this production. Aside from the overt references to lines from the book, Gatsby also – on a surface level – holds a strong visual appeal, and creates an enchanting microcosmic world in the intimate space of the Union Theatre. The characters that populate this realm are convincing and mesmerising, as the actors capture the irrational, reckless zeitgeist of 1920s New York. Many of the performers are multitalented and not only deliver their lines with conviction, but also flit between executing buoyant dance sequences, playing various musical instruments and singing the catchy melodies composed by Joe Evans. There are stand-out performances from Kate Marlais and Samantha Louise Clarke. Marlais assumes the complex role of Jordan Baker with intelligence, portraying simultaneously how the character distinguishes herself from her era, yet remains a product of her wild surroundings. Meanwhile, Clarke bounces around the stage as Lucille a newly invented showgirl character who is a rampant, unrestrained caricature of a liberated, Jazz Age flapper.
But underneath all this frivolity resides the ominous presence of The Great Gatsby’s resounding themes: the decline of the American Dream and the hollow existence of the upper classes. And this is what Gatsby does so well. It reminds us of the dark side of The Great Gatsby, and the importance of Fitzgerald’s messages, making those of us who consider the twenties a Golden Age reconsider whether we were actually born in the wrong era, or were instead lucky to escape the hedonistic decade, comparable to a wild party, that spiralled out of control.
Gatsby is playing at the Union Theatre until 30 April. For more information see the Union Theatre website. Photo: Roy Tan