by Margret Echeverria
Those dapper gents and flapper gals on 7th avenue are traveling back in time to a prohibition-era party at the Park Central Hotel at 56th Street . Even before ticket holders step through the Gatsby Mansion entrance for THE GREAT GATSBY – THE IMMERSIVE SHOW they feel united in gaiety with one another as almost everyone has dressed up like it is 1922, therefore “Ain’t we got fun?” speaks through excited smiles and however hard your day was, it melts away before the music even starts. Wear comfortable shoes because you will want to be part of the action.
The forbidden libations bar is open and the offerings are divine. My date said to me, this Old Fashioned tastes like it’s good for you! The show begins with song and dancing all around us. Onto the dance floor steps Nick Caraway, Rob Brinkmann, who looks and behaves as if he just tumbled out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s world. Brinkmann speaks in a humble midwestern manner while looking directly into our eyes, never losing the spoken style the story requires. Instant affection for him arose when his soft brown eyes landed on me and my date. We approve, Dear Nick; do tell us more. And, since this is an immersive show, he chooses to tell us so much more, privately, later.
Jay Gatsby, Joel Acosta, is impish and full of mischief, which surprised me. It worked, though. The story is so melancholy, that the mirth Acosta brings to the tragic hero balances out nicely. Acosta asks an audience member, dressed in silk breathtakingly beaded with a peacock design, her opinion on how he should present himself to the object of his affection. He says he trusts this audience member due to her obvious impeccable taste in dresses. He then stylizes the suggestion in well-executed physical comedy that comes in as welcome relief. Myrtle Wilson, Claire Saunders, is fleshed out far beyond what the book gives us. She is sexy when she speaks, moving her visibly plump
lips and tossing her curls about, inviting Tom Buchanan (Shahzeb Hussain), and her husband, George Wilson (Keivon Akbari), to give her what she wants.
The casting of Hussain by this show’s creative team jarred me a little. He speaks in a working-class cadence, is diminutive in stature and earns low status throughout the show by consistently pleading for agreement to his point of view from everyone he meets. Fitzgerald’s Tom is a guy who played football at Yale, comes from money so old he has never worked a blue-collar job in his life and he is a eugenics-advocating racist who shrugs his shoulders and mutters, “Science!” Hussain gives us a Tom who is likeable. He is sweetly vulnerable fighting for love from his wife, arousing empathic moans from the audience. This despite our knowing that his fears make him controlling and violent toward his women.
Daisy Buchanan, Jillian Anne Abaya, is perfectly cast except for one thing: There is nothing extraordinary about her voice. Fitzgerald writes of Daisy’s voice as though it is that of Cleopatra herself. The show attempts the illusion by having Abaya sing and declaring her voice to be “full of money,” but the morning after, I can’t tell you what she sang or remark on anything unusual about the way she sang it. Abaya’s embodiment of Daisy’s bondage as an early 20th century woman from a wealthy family is spot on. The extraordinary voice is substituted with the excruciating betrayal of her true feelings by her eyes that rinse the windows to her heart with tears even as she speaks carefully worded declarations of delight thereby cracking our hearts wide open.
Akbari breathes a welcome life into George Wilson that the novel did not. He is a hunky blue-collar guy with a giant heart in service to that Devil who permeates this entire story, the American Dream. The wonderful thing about this Immersive theatre style is that characters will grab a group of audience members, pull them from the main performance space and take them into a more intimate setting showing us their secret selves. My date and I were pulled into George’s private world by Akbari when he presented a George reverent of his dreams, asked us about our greatest achievements, and made us his friends. In the interaction, I promise we could not tell what was scripted and what was not. Meisner would have had an orgasm as Akbari had seven of us in the palms of his hands helping him with a composition at an upright piano, and then on the main stage later, he was singing the words we gave him as a piercing-to-our hearts tribute to his wife. There are ten ways to see the story due to this clever technique, which attaches us all to some of the characters in a deeply personal way each time you see the show. You get your monies’ worth, yet you’ll want to see the show again because you know there is more. My only disappointment this evening was that I really wanted to know more about Jordan Baker, Stephanie Rocio. Her character does not have much material for us to relate to in the main performance arena. She teaches all of us how to do the Charleston at the beginning the show and felt like that butterfly at a cocktail party to whom I could never catch up. She is Nick’s love interest, so I was naturally very curious about her. See? Now, I want to see the show again.
It’s the elusive American Dream that is killing each of these characters. They all want to be seen and loved by the people closest to them, but society’s classist dictates tell the Devil’s lie: We cannot be who we truly are and achieve the ultimate dream. Fitzgerald exposed this fallacy in the 1920’s and it is still feeding on our souls today. In this Immersive Experience however, the audience may explore the true heart and humanity of each character intimately, the possibility being a blissful catharsis by the end. Even if they cannot truly connect with each other, they each connect with us. After the final bow, the actors stay a while, the bar stays open and we get to dance the Charleston with the cast members. Who could ask for anything more, Old Sports?
THE GREAT GATSBY – THE IMMERSIVE SHOW created by Alexander Wright, Holly Beasley-Garrigan, Amie Burns Walker, Hannah Davies, Phil Grainger, Michael Lambourne, Thomas Maller and Oliver Tilney; Direction by Alexander Wright
WITH Joel Acosta (Jay Gatsby), Rob Brinkmann (Nick Carraway), Jillian Anne Abaya (Daisy Buchanan), Shahzeb Hussain (Tom Buchanan), Stephanie Rocío (Jordan Baker), Keivon Akbari (George Wilson), Claire Saunders (Myrtle Wilson), Nicholas Caycedo (Joey), Kiki Burns (Lucille), Charlie Marcus (Meyer Wolfsheim), Jeremiah Ginn (Owl Eyes), and Stephanie Cha (Kitty Klipspringer), Anika Braganza (Gilda), and Mya Rosado-Tran (Charlie McKee). The production features scenic design by Casey Jay Andrews, costume design by Vanessa Leuck, and lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Composers are Tendai and Glen with music direction by Claire McKenzie. Peter Fitzgerald is the sound designer and Kristin Dwyer is the stage manager.
THE GREAT GATSBY – THE IMMERSIVE SHOW playing thru November 30 (Tuesdays 7pm, Wed-Fri 8pm, Saturdays 3pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm and 7pm) at “Gatsby Mansion,” Park Central Hotel New York, 870 7th Ave, New York, NY 10019