Theatre Review: Shadowbox’s Broken Whispers Sometimes Shines New Light on ‘Gatsby’
Shadowbox Live continues its recent trend of interspersing their bread-and-butter sketch comedy and song revues with more ambitious, serious work, with Broken Whispers. I attended a preview performance on Wednesday of this dance-theatre adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s modernist classic The Great Gatsby. Choreographed and staged by Katy Psenicka, adapted by Jimmy Mak and directed by Stev Guyer, Shadowbox started from one twist: Gatsby (Amy Lay) is cast as a woman. In a tight two hours, Shadowbox overcame most of my initial skepticism and fit a decent amount of the source material onto that stage (credit to Mark Dahnke’s effective, minimal set design). I found myself swept away by their take on the decadent, glittering underbelly of the American Dream.
The greatest reason for the success of Broken Whispers is Amy Lay’s magnetic, volcanic Gatsby. Talked about for the first couple scenes by narrator Nick Carraway (a charming Robbie Nance), his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Miriam King), her husband Tom (Andy Ankrom) and Jordan Baker (Nikki Fagin), she rightly gains a mythic tint. Her opening number, set to Portishead’s “Glory Box,” while it also sets up a piece of the adaptation that’s baffling to me with this Gatsby being a madam instead of a bootlegger, is drenched in exactly the devourer-of-worlds sexy both the role and the world of the story need. King’s Daisy didn’t have that edge, that sense of how much of her shallowness is real and how much of it is playing everyone, I look for, but her acrobatic dancing is astonishing. The sequence where King and Lay dance in unison, not touching, to an adaptation of Lorde’s cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” implying her history with Gatsby, is perfect, as is their coming together to Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo.”
The love triangle between Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom doesn’t work if the other side folds and Ankrom’s Tom is breathtaking to watch. He captures the swagger and the emptiness of his character, and outside of a few lines, like Myrtle’s husband being “Too stupid to know he’s alive,” does it all physically. He and Lay going at it over Daisy in their final confrontation, throwing King around like a rag doll, is as thrilling as anything I’ve seen on a stage this year. It’s maybe the finest example of dance-fighting I’ve ever seen. And he uses that same physicality in a sexual way; there’s never any doubt women of the caliber we see on stage will keep falling for someone like him.
I most enjoyed when the music was used for tonal quality: the end-of-the-world party almost as pagan ritual to Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox’s arrangement of “Careless Whisper” and Portishead’s “All Mine” taking the skin off the power imbalance of “happy couples.” When the music seemed to sync the lyrics directly to the dance, my attention tended to wander, as on a beautifully sung but dramatically inert “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and a strangely defanged “Stupid Girl.” Worst for me was Seal’s “Prayer for the Dying” with its lyrics apparently talking about lessons learned and honoring your friend by living which undercut some heartbreaking work by Lay. When the show hit these potholes, the jarring tonal disconnect was hard to recover from.
Broken Whispers gets and sells Gatsby’s original loneliness, its deep ache. It understands and, through Psenicka’s smart use of the large stage and its empty spaces, the unanswerable question of whether we bring loneliness on ourselves or if lonely is just the default human condition that makes our striving to get past it so poignant. It stumbles on the novel’s fascinating ambiguity. Nikki Fagin’s Jordan is almost too delightful and charming, Carraway’s tart assessment of her character at the end of the play comes out of left field. In a similar vein, Carraway’s speech about everyone being awful feels like too much underlining for a show that often avoids that trap. It comes closest to getting that tone right in Tom Buchanan’s relationship with Myrtle. The piece doesn’t shy away from his abuse; they leave in his breaking her nose. Their dancing together paradoxically takes place to weak spots in the music: a ponderous ballad arrangement of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and a too-long take on Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox’s arrangement of Radiohead’s “Creep.” But they provide a needed frisson and real suspense in the show, Edelyn Parker’s dancing around, over, and under Ankrom’s center of gravity makes Myrtle more than fallout from the decisions of the characters with agency, she makes the character breathe.
Throughout the band – a four-piece this time – leans into restraint and tastefulness, playing with the tension of a prog-flavored rock band echoing and commenting on the smoky, sultry jazz The jazz age/flapper setting of the book also lends itself well to the immersive Shadowbox experience. Fans at the preview show I attended loved dressing up, and I heard marvelous things about the cocktails, though this writer was running late enough I only had a standard Manhattan.
Broken Whispers runs through November 10th with shows Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays, August 21st and 28th at 7:00 pm. For tickets and more info, visit shadowboxlive.org/shows/broken-whispers.