Bring contemporary hits to the stages of Queens

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There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. “The Great Gatsby”, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Curiosity, as well as my illusions, got me to The Public Theater on a Friday to see the Elevator Repair Service’s production of “GATZ,” the word-for-word entire text of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, performed by 13 actors. The reviews were positive, especially by Ben Brantley in The New York Times, who called it an exciting and improbable accomplishment. “The Great Gatsby” is considered to be one of America’s best novels but, I wondered, how good could this really be as a play.

The answer is, of course, real good, with superb staging and acting, most notably by Scott Shepherd, who played the narrator Nick Carraway. But a production like this is not for the faint of heart — it’s 6 1/2 hours long, plus two intermissions and a dinner break, eight hours all together. Definitely worth seeing however, and a lesson as to how creative and compelling theater can be.

Debbie Starker, the mover and shaker behind Deb’s Web, the online site dedicated to theater happenings on Long Island, with a nod or two to Queens and other exotic locales, says that she’s tired of the “same-old, same-old” productions of musicals and plays, all too common in our non-professional venues. Those regular readers of this column know that I share that criticism. This spring two of our major and long-lived local companies are offering old murder mysteries, presumably with the expectation that that’s what their audiences want to see. Perhaps the increasing difficulty in filling their seats might tell them otherwise.

Not that I’m suggesting that our locals take on “GATZ” — let’s not go overboard — but there is so much entertaining and provocative contemporary material to choose from, that, with very few exceptions, never gets produced this side of the East River. Sheila Rhyne, former Flushing resident now entrenched on the Upper West Side, sees just about every show there is to see. She points out that most of the good stuff is done Off Broadway, although seldom for a long run. Many of our theater-going residents would welcome the opportunity to see these shows close to home at a more affordable ticket price.

The current Tony nominations recognize a number of productions that were hits Off Broadway, such as “Once” and “Clybourne Park.” Broadway remains solvent mainly from tourist dollars, so don’t expect anything too daring there. Mounting costs cause producers to be risk-averse — only one of three shows on the Great White Way make a profit — and revivals and celebrity names flourish.

Remembering my father’s love of the works of Gilbert & Sullivan, I recently attended The Collegiate Chorale’s concert version of “The Mikado” at Carnegie Hall, backed by the American Symphony Orchestra. The lead performers included Kelli O’Hara as Yum-Yum, fresh from her great success in “South Pacific,” and Christopher Fitzgerald as Ko-Ko, who was the leprechaun in the revival of “Finian’s Rainbow.” (I wish one of our local groups would do that show: the score is terrific and the book timely.) For a top-notch vocal ensemble here in Queens, check out the Oratorio Society headed by maestro David Close.

W.S. Gilbert was surely the greatest of British lyric writers, an ability lacking in the United Kingdom since his day. We Americans have cornered the market in memorable phrases in our theater songs, Stephen Sondheim being the latest example. See his two volumes on “Finishing the Hat” for the proof.

Happy birthday to my favorite mother-in-law, Rickey, 94, on May 3.

Contact Ron Hellman at

Updated 7:26 pm, May 9, 2012
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