2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival Review: ‘GATZ’ at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre

The program for GATZ claims that it is “A parody based on ‘The Great Gatsby’ Written by F. Scot. Fitzgerald.” (Note that Fitzgerald’s middle name is misspelled.) But a parody is, by definition, a comedy. GATZ is not a comedy (though there are a few jokes); instead, it’s a straight dramatic adaptation of The Great Gatsby, with the setting changed from Long Island in the 1920s to Philadelphia in the 2020s or 2030s.

GATZ logo. Courtesy FringeArts.
GATZ logo. Courtesy FringeArts.

Harrison Stengle directed and wrote GATZ, and while his direction is acceptable, his script doesn’t work. Modernizing the story adds nothing to it; the new elements are shopworn (instead of drinking bootleg hooch, everybody uses illegal drugs, like in the 1980s novel Bright Lights, Big City) or use heavy-handed, sledgehammer shorthand for characterization; for instance, we’re supposed to know Tom Buchanan (played by Jesse Bradley) is unlikable because he asks “Have you read The Art of the Deal?

Transplanting the story to Philadelphia makes no sense: instead of living in a palatial Long Island estate, Gatsby now lives across the river from Philadelphia next to the Aquarium. (No offense to the City of Camden, but that’s quite a comedown.) And the soap opera dialogue (“I don’t know what’s gotten into you lately.” “You’re breaking up with me?” “You know what? I hate you.”) doesn’t fit with the beautifully poetic narration by Nick Carraway (Jonny Long), most of it taken directly from Fitzgerald’s text.

Most of the actors wear modern hipster garb (including leather, blue jeans, and sneakers), except for Gatsby, who wears a snazzy suit that could use a pressing and some dress shoes. And the lighting is quite effective, especially during a lovely romantic moment when Gatsby and Daisy are suffused in pink. James Jackson is the Technical Designer; he’s the only credited designer.

Bradley and Long are fine in their roles, as are most of the actors. But Jenna McLaughlin’s too-loud Daisy Buchanan (over-emoting in every scene) and Lamar Bumbrey’s suave but too-quiet Jay Gatsby (hard to hear at times over the throbbing club music) have no romantic chemistry. William Lightner, in the small role of the wronged auto mechanic George Wilson, makes the best impression, giving the warmest, most recognizably human performance. I wish him, and the rest of these talented performers, better luck next time.

Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes, including an intermission.

GATZ plays through Sunday, September 24, 2017, and is presented at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre – 2111 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the Fringe box office at (215) 413-9006, or purchase them online.



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