The Other Side of Paradise

| July 16, 2017

The Other Side of Paradise

The Green Room 42, NYC, July 14, 2017

Reviewed by Marilyn Lester for Cabaret Scenes

(L-R) Dan Garmon, Angela Sclafani, Jesse Weil, Photo: Lauren Khalfayan

Those legendary icons of the Jazz Age, F. Scott and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald—poster children for a great love gone terribly, terribly wrong—have long been depicted in all manner of media over the years. This latest portrayal of the doomed couple is a musicalization of their life via a mini-operetta entitled The Other Side of Paradise. The two-hander is a vehicle for Angela Sclafani who also wrote the music, book and lyrics. The production is designed for clubs and speakeasies, billing itself as a “part wild concert, part theater and part 1920s underground apartment party,” spanning 30 years of history in 80 uninterrupted minutes. It’s an ambitious and admirable undertaking. No doubt Sclafani put heart and soul into the work, yet The Other Side of Paradise suffers from its reach exceeding its grasp. In trying to take on too much, the piece is not so much concert, theater or party, but more like a not unpleasant tuneful disquisition, with an extended recitative punctuated by several snippets of dialog.

The Fitzgeralds met in 1918 in Montgomery, Alabama, were wed two years later and, with the success of Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, commenced to live an extravagant life of partying and drinking from New York to Paris and back again. Both Fitzgeralds were highly creative and highly strung and as the marriage progressed, it began to implode, with Zelda’s descent into mental illness and Scott’s alcoholism worsening. Estranged during the latter part of their marriage, Scott died of a sudden heart attack in 1940 (at age 44) while living in Los Angeles, while Zelda, confined to a mental institution in the East, died in a fire in 1948. These broad strokes are addressed in The Other Side of Paradise, but without enough meat on the bone to flesh out the characters beyond the obvious. As a result, the Fitzgeralds remain Wikipedia versions of themselves, devoid of a rising story arc, dramatic climax and gut-grabbing denouement.

Since the expository lyrics  offer no new information, the result is a sung linear biography that relies on its alternative rock score and staging bells and whistles to prop it up.

Sclafani, an operatic soprano, and baritone Jesse Weil as Scott, both competently sing the score, but lack the charisma or razzle dazzle to generate heat and depth in their portrayals. There’s plenty of angst, but it runs along the surface of the libretto, with little to support the complexities of the Fitzgeralds and the underlying motivations of their actions. The point of view is also exclusively Zelda’s and, if there’s a theme to the piece, it’s her extreme bitterness, especially in the use of her diaries as source material for Scott’s stories. But bitterness alone does not a story make, with Zelda coming off as a whiny brat and Scott as a weak, one-dimensional loser. Toward the end, the death of  Scott is announced by the reading of a letter, and the death of Zelda is in the hands of the Band Leader who’s sung narration bookends the show. It’s an anticlimax. The Other Side of Paradise fails to move beyond the stereotypical mythicized Scott and Zelda. In the end there’s no sense of heartbreak for this tragic couple, for we know that myth all too well, and its familiarity can’t be overcome with a work that’s not invested in exploring new ground. Because The Other Side of Paradise never jumps outside the box, it fails to create that sense of sparkle, excitement, awe and wonderment those young and beautiful Fitzgeralds inspired in their day.

Some color is added to the production by a multi-functional band. Musical Director/pianist Dan Garmon sings a small part as Ernest Hemingway, with drummer Elena Bonomo reading lines as Scott’s editor Max Perkins. Katini Yamaoka, whose character is named “Band Leader,” plays several decorative roles in addition to her sung narration. The small part of Zelda’s lover, Edouard, usually played by trumpeter Wayne Tucker, was split for this performance between player David Adewumi and actor Matt Rodin. Playing the upright bass is Melanie Hsu. The score is pleasant and tuneful, but runs much on a loop of sameness, despite the energetic and sometimes inspired playing of the quartet. In pitting a contemporary sound against a 1920s setting, Sclafani and Garmon, who arranged and orchestrated, missed a great opportunity to add color, magic, and relevance to the score with Jazz Age musical ideas salted in.

Director Hunter Bird makes good use of the space he has to work with, using areas on and off the small stage with an energetic flow. Bird also employed some excellent creative ideas to keep the action interesting, such as treating the trumpet as the Fitzgerald baby, Scottie, in the birth scene. The logistics of having Adewumi blow the trumpet to emulate the baby’s crying in Zelda’s arms is somewhat awkward, but admirable for its innovation. Costume design by Leah Jean Gallagher focuses on Zelda’s period dresses, with little attention otherwise; Scott’s attire is uniformly contemporary in appearance and uninteresting, while the Band Leader’s slinky backless dress is not a fit for the Jazz Age. Lighting by Joe Cantalupo is uneven, especially with two spotlights glaring into the audience during one scene. Scenic design, a well-stocked bar, is by Justin and Christopher Swader, with sound design by Alex Xie.

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Category: Musical Theatre Reviews, New York City, New York City Musical Theatre Reviews, Off-Broadway Reviews, Regional

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