IMMERSIVE GREAT GATSBY Brings The Roarin’ 20s To Midtown — Review
Theatergoers are in for a Great Glut of Gatsby over the next few years. As soon as F. Scott Fitgerald’s legendary novel entered the public domain on January 1st, 2021, a wave of stage adaptations were quickly announced. Paper Mill Playhouse is premiering a musical version this October with music by Jason Howland (Paradise Square) and lyrics by Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting). Then swiftly following is Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett’s take, set for the American Repertory Theater next May.
Landing in New York before any of them, though, is Great Gatsby: The Immersive Show, which opened in a custom-designed space within Park Central Hotel following a multi-year run in London. Immersive Gatsby is a mixed success, undeniably enjoyable at points but ultimately felled by the limitations of its venue and the challenge of reconciling its immersive format with the novel’s social critiques.
The show’s main playing space is Gatsby’s lavish mansion, where the “Roarin’ 20s” are very much roarin’. As the players are introduced, we are encouraged to dance alongside the ensemble. Cast members then peel the audience off into smaller groups, guiding us into one of many attached spaces — Gatsby’s study, storage rooms for bootlegging operations, etc. With so many scenes overlapping each other, you will only experience bits and pieces of the show, though central plot points are covered in the main room while everyone is present.
Vanessa Leuck’s costumes are stunning, but the show’s scenic environments left me wanting. Upon entry, you first move through bland hotel spaces, which is not the most transporting way to start. Gatsby’s mansion is most likely a repurposed conference space, and it very much feels like a repurposed conference space. The show’s smaller rooms are more skillfully designed, but its overall environment feels half-finished.
Nick Carraway (Rob Brinkmann) delivers an opening monologue and ostensibly guides us through the narrative, but he quickly gets lost in the chaos. Jay Gatsby himself (a charming Joél Acosta) makes more of an impression, and the show has fun with a mess of partygoers, popping up all around the room, delivering contradictory tales of Gatsby’s background. The evening’s best performance actually belongs to the diminutive Shahzeb Hussain as Tom Buchanan, who first uses his size to great comic advantage (a yell of “Short King!” greeted his entrance), then later turns frightening in an effective reversal.
In terms of the show’s immersive elements, the very talented cast is forced to carry too much of the load. Chatting with them one-on-one is a lot of fun - there are some skillful improvisers in that ensemble. But the crowd control is awkward, and the audience “tasks” are mostly silly. At one point George Wilson (Keivon Akbari) enlisted me and three others to help with a highly secret bootlegging operation, but hurried walking and hushed tones all led up to…moving bottles from some boxes into a cabinet. Not exactly heart-racing stuff.
At my performance, a number of us spent the show’s whole second act in the main room, even as a few smaller groups were still pulled away for other scenes. That meant I experienced the novel’s final tragic turns as, essentially, a straightforward play. It actually helped the story’s tonal shift — should we still be running around having fun as all that promise dies?
But of course, if an immersive Great Gatsby’s solution to the story’s darker turns is to wind down the immersion, then the creators never cracked the central challenge of their whole project. So have some drinks, enjoy yourself, chat with the cast if you can. There is fun to be had at Immersive Gatsby. But it is neither a coherent telling of its source material nor a fully realized immersive experience.
The Great Gatsby is now in performance at the Park Central Hotel in New York City. For tickets and more information, click here.