In November 1918: The Great War and The Great Gatsby, John Monsky has brought what is clearly a labor of love to the stage in an apt and timely Veterans Day homage to the soldiers who served during World War I.  Drawing from a wealth of information gathered over many years, Monsky presents artifacts, anecdotes, historical fact and contemporary music, against the backdrop of rare photographic images, to bring to life an era of significant change in US and European history.  World War I, or the Great War, wrought havoc and suffering on an enormous scale, as the machinery of war outpaced the machinery of diplomacy, devouring lives by the millions.  Narrated by Monsky and beautifully performed by the Orchestra of St. Lukes under the baton of Ian Weinberger, and a talented cast of five Broadway singers, November 1918 has moments of revelation and tragedy that bring tears to your eyes.

In the era of the Great War, music was the principal conduit through which people on the home front connected to faraway loved ones.  And what music!  From “Pack up your Troubles” to “Bring Back My Soldier Boy to Me” to George M. Cohan’s rousing “Over There” these songs trace history, comprising universal emotions of grief, longing, hope and resolve.  Singers Kristolyn Lloyd, Stephanie Jae Park, Kate Rockwell, Nicholas Rodriquez and Daniel Yearwood, deliver them with polish and a lot of heart.

My heart sank when I saw the singers walk onstage wearing headset microphones.  You can go to any auditorium to hear canned sound.  You go to Carnegie Hall to hear music as it was meant to be heard.  Even more inexplicable, in a legendary concert hall renowned for his extraordinary acoustics, was the choice to amplify the orchestra.  Not surprisingly, the orchestra frequently drowned out the singers …possibly because the producers chose to mount this performance in a legendary concert hall renowned for its extraordinary acoustics – and then mic the orchestra.  Case in point, Stephanie Jae Park’s impassioned rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”  There Park is, downstage center, being fabulous, and you hear her only intermittently.
Director Peter Flynn effectively balances the static focus on Monsky as narrator with choreography for the singers.  I do wish he had directed them to play to the balcony, however.  Almost the entire performance is aimed straight down the center of the orchestra seats, leaving a large amount of the audience out.  Stephanie Jae Park and Kate Rockwell give standout performances.  Both take stage effortlessly.  Rockwell  has a beautiful instrument, with power and clear sound throughout her considerable range, as evidenced in her stirring rendition of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” and the heart wrenching “What’ll I Do,” sung as a duet with the winning Kristolyn Lloyd.  (I’m not crying, you’re crying.)

Within the superfluous, forced retrospective lens of the novel The Great Gatsby, Monsky anchors his narration in the lives of real individuals:  Vera Brittain, a British woman who left her studies at Oxford University to become a battlefield nurse; James Reese, a black American  jazz musician, composer and soldier; Charles Whittlesey, a young American lawyer turned officer; and Quentin Roosevelt, the son President Teddy Roosevelt.  Such tales to tell — a woman who abandons a promising academic career to attend to soldiers on the battlefield, writes a best selling memoir and fights for the League of Nations; a black man who goes to fight behalf of a country that will Jim Crow him the moment he sets foot back on home shores; the harrowing battle experience of  a conscientious, sensitive man whose PTSD haunted his life forever; and a combat pilot whose letters home paint a vivid picture of the war’s progress.  Add to that Monsky’s touching personal connection to the Great War,

At its best, the show brings us back in time, with familiar tunes and compelling, human stories that resonate as much today as they did during the war.  At its worst, however,  November 1918 suffers from a bad case of overreach.  Too much detail, redundancy and clunkers like having the singers constantly cite every quote they make, when it is clear from the context who is speaking, add unwelcome drag.  The material would pack greater punch, and be less wearying, if it were better curated.  November 1918: The Great War and The Great Gatsby nevertheless does fine justice to The Great War and those who fought in it.  With thoughtful editing, however the show could do more with less, giving the audience more space to absorb and enjoy.

Written and narrated by John Monsky, directed by Peter Flynn, arranged and conducted by Music Supervisor Ian Weinberger; with Kristolyn Lloyd, Stephanie Jae Park, Kate Rockwell, Nicholas Rodriguez and Daniel Yearwood.

At Carnegie Hall (881 Seventh Avenue, NYC) November 8, 2023.