This Side of Paradise
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 21, 2010
F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda—the "It Couple" of their generation, the Roaring Twenties—lived their tumultuous lives in the public eye, became the leading lights of the first generation of American writers and artists to expatriate themselves to bohemian Europe, fought tempestuously, failed publicly, and died young: Scott as a prematurely washed-up alcoholic and Zelda as an institutionalized schizophrenic. Glamorous, troubled, passionate, charming, gifted—they seem tailor-made for the silver screen or the musical stage.
So why does This Side of Paradise, a new musical about their lives, feel so flat—so generic? It seems almost like the creators, Nancy Harrow and Will Pomerantz, have stripped away the specifics of what made Scott and Zelda vital, compelling, magnetic—both in terms of their historical context and their particular love story. Devon Painter's costumes vividly evoke the period, but otherwise the piece takes a name-dropping approach to reckoning with the Twenties—a mention of Gerald and Sara Murphy here, a few scenes with Hemingway and Maxwell Perkins there, but no sense of the way the world was changing or the place the Fitzgeralds and their "set" had in that world. The story of the relationship, too, seems very much to skim from event to event rather than stemming from any sort of character development: a musical number when Scott and Zelda meet; their first breakup; Scott's first publication; a few scenes of sophistication and success, though with hollowness underneath; a boxing match with Ernest Hemingway (the most excitingly staged scene in the show); Zelda's breakdown; Scott in Hollywood—all in brief scenes or musical numbers without a lot of character development. And Harrow and Pomerantz don't seem to want us to enjoy the company of Scott and Zelda very much—particularly Zelda, who comes off as shallow, coquettish, occasionally nagging, and generally a destructive influence (the Daisy to Scott's Gatsby, whom he would have better avoided entirely, as one of the songs puts it).
A lot of the book feels like it's been lifted straight from correspondence between the two, or even Scott's fiction or essays, and hasn't quite made the transition into believable dialogue. Also, the piece uses two framing devices that obstruct the characters and the story—and that make the book feel heavy with clunky exposition. First, the play is largely set in the mental institution where Zelda spent the latter part of her life; the older Zelda tells her doctor how she felt about certain experiences as we see the younger Zelda enact them. Second, toward the end of the play, retrospective monologues by the Fitzgeralds' daughter, Scottie, show her likewise looking back on her parents' later years. Both Rachel Moulton (Young Zelda) and Mandy Bruno (Scottie) are winsome and charming, but the structure of the piece makes it hard to connect with them. And although there are some poignant moments in the encounters between the two Zeldas—or when the older Zelda looks on at the younger—the two devices undercut any kind of storytelling momentum, and largely serve to make the play's dominant emotional tone a kind of generalized wistfulness.
The music, for the most part, is far stronger than the book, especially the more upbeat numbers ("Dear Max," a witty ditty sung by Scott and his creditors, is particularly charming), and the four-piece band of first-rate jazz musicians is outstanding. But the songs, too, often feel divorced from the characters; they sound like elegant cabaret standards, and often evoke imagery or phrasing from Fitzgerald's fiction—but in a way that seems like too pat an equation of the real-life Scott and Zelda with their various fictional counterparts. "You May Never Get to East Egg," or the lyric "For every Gatsby There's a Daisy," might better be sung in the musical of Gatsby than in the musical about its creator.
The members of the ensemble all have strong singing voices, and the piece definitely comes most to life during its musical numbers. But the book—and the piece as an artistic whole—has a lot of catching up to do. The jazz ensemble was the strongest, most memorable element—not Scott and Zelda.