The Great Gatsby – School Musical Review

Torquay Boys’ Grammar School presents The Great Gatsby, a new jukebox musical inspired by the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same name.

As a cultural phenomenon, The Great Gatsby re-emerged in the decade approaching the ‘New Roaring Twenties’ after the release of the immensely popular 2013 Baz Luhrmann movie (starring Leonardo DiCaprio). As such, to stage a jukebox musical of The Great Gatsby in 2021 is a rather smart decision, especially considering that Luhrmann also directed the similarly chaotic jukebox musical Moulin Rouge! in 2001.

The manor at torquay boys' grammar school is decorated to set the scene of the roaring 20s
Torquay Boys’ Grammar School
Manor Gardens

Of the 1920’s Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes that ‘It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, it was an age of satire’, a quote that for me best summarises the vision that James Hunt and Chris Eastman had for this musical adaptation. There are many parallels between this new musical and the previous works of Baz Luhrmann, including a delightfully maximalist approach to the set, costumes, and music.

Whilst other jukebox musicals such as ‘Mamma Mia!‘ and ‘We Will Rock You!‘ rely on the songs of just one band (ABBA and Queen respectively) the song choices throughout The Great Gatsby are mostly dictated by the story. As such we are left with a ‘postmodern fusion’ of songs spanning nearly a century. This could have easily become messy, but the arrangements and performances all kept within the overarching themes of the original source material: excess and Jazz.

The music was at its best when reimagining unique songs that have a timeless feel about them. Jazz standards such as ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing‘ or ‘Sing Sing Sing‘ fit in well as they should, but the stranger choices such as the Sinatra-esque ‘Impossible Year‘ by Panic! At the Disco felt extremely fresh thanks to the arrangements by Chris Eastman. Whilst songs such as ‘Party Rock Anthem‘ or ‘Get Lucky‘ are far too 2010’s for my taste, they do lend themselves well to the spectacle of Gatsby’s parties.

Another song choice in danger of being too dated was Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity‘, but a legendary vocal performance from Matilda Nicholls injected so much life into the first act; Myrtle did not come to play! It is fantastic to hear that both Matilda and the pitch-perfect Avalon Vowles (Daisy) will be continuing on to study the Performing Arts at a higher level.

A musical such as this one really relies on the strength of its live orchestra, and the direction of Chris Eastman allowed the schools’ musical talent to take centre stage. Not only did the performers play with a maturity well beyond that of students, but the arrangements themselves highlighted the nature of the original songs whilst bringing a relevant 1920’s energy.

This musical seems to have been chosen due to the fact that many of the Jazz Band’s instrumental performers also have a talent for singing on stage. Most notably Robert Harrison who plays the delightfully hypocritical Tom Buchanan, and Kit Oliver-Stevens playing the charming and troubled Gatsby. A completely ostentatious yet impressive saxophone solo played by Gatsby on stage during Lizzo’s ‘Juice‘ had me in awe, particularly due to the showmanship of Kit but also due to the excellent microphoning of the instrument.

Another musical highlight included an ambitious use of Gerschwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue‘, complete with iconic clarinet slide and an energetic piano solo courtesy of Year 13 leaver Fred Williams. Here the choreography took centre stage, as the chorus created static shapes with their bodies to mimic the skyline of the city.

a picture of the manor at night, with a glowing chandelier

As a result of COVID-19, the show had to be adapted for an outside performance very quickly. The performers were separated by year group into literal tiers on the stage. Luckily the choreographer Victoria Pellant used the challenge provided to increase the creativity, and the outside setting and various height differences of the stage led to a simple yet effective display.

Despite the outdoors setting, the show sounded rather clean, with only a few microphone issues as is to be expected from any school musical. This also led to set pieces changing over time as the sun set; a ghostly chandelier above the manor added a sinister ambience to the last third of the performance. To move an entire musical outside is no easy feat, and thanks to the hard work of the set and props team, as well as the techies, the Great Gatsby managed to have a very successful debut.

Furthermore, as the sun was setting a fantastically camp performance of ‘Hysteria‘ by Muse allowed the bands’ trumpeter George Menter to shine, featuring a shred guitar solo by David Pearse that brought a new macabre energy towards the end of the show. This set the tone for my personal favourite arrangement, a wickedly dark presentation of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties‘ originally by The Velvet Underground to finish off the tale of Gatsby.

One can only imagine the extent of challenges this show has faced as a result of the pandemic, and the impact it has had on the staff and students is nothing to scoff at. Through dedication and perseverance the students got their well deserved Summer musical and put on a real show. A massive congratulations to everybody involved.

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