This Side of Paradise

By Pearl Chen

Before Angelina and Brad, Lucy and Desi, Marilyn and Joe, there were Zelda and Scott. The Fitzgeralds were the “it” couple of the Roaring Twenties: young and beautiful, impulsive and idealistic, glamorous and hopelessly restless for a life that even the Great Gatsby might not have dreamed of. Their story, from their passionate love affair to their crumbled marriage, is the focus of the latest literary-themed production from the Culture Project: This Side of Paradise, now playing off-Broadway at the Theater at St. Clement’s.

production03

The musical begins with the elder Zelda, now confined in a sanatorium, recalling her life with Scott to a concerned doctor. Flashbacks bring us to 1918 Montgomery, Alabama, where Zelda, the daughter of a prominent judge, is the belle of the ball — as well as the love at first sight (and later the muse) for F. Scott Fitzgerald, a budding author who is fresh from a tour of duty in WWI. The two begin a tumultuous love affair, staked in large part on whether Scott can make it as a novelist. He succeeds with his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, and the couple catapults into instant stardom and a high-rolling lifestyle. Happiness, however, is elusive; Scott’s drinking and Zelda’s obsessive, often-illusory pursuit of a talent of her own overshadow their fragile relationship. She suffers a mental breakdown, and he dies of a heart attack at age 44.

It’s a story as tragic and alluring as the novels it inspired – and it’s disappointingly under-executed in this production. Accomplished jazz musician Nancy Harrow, who composed music and lyrics (based on her 2003 CD Winter Dreams) and cowrote the book with director Will Pomerantz, takes care to portray the Fitzgeralds’ lives as they lived them. The easy-to-follow plot proceeds with historical faithfulness but falls short of capturing the romantic intrigue and complicated codependant-destructive relationship that lay at the heart of these two legendary figures.

Much of the problem has to do with the unremarkable writing, which surfaces most egregiously in the lyrics of the production’s uptempo, elementary-rhyme songs:

We’ve won,

It’s fun

We’re all really beautiful

And we can pay the price

It’s this side of paradise

Other times, songs don’t match the gravity of the situation. When Fitzgerald is in financial ruin near the end of his life, he and his creditors break out in a charming but inappropriate song-and-dance number “Dear Max.”

production01

What’s even more disturbing is that Fitzgerald, played by Michael Shawn Lewis, never ages, while Zelda is portrayed as a young woman by Rachel Moulton and later in life by Maureen Mueller. Moulton injects great vitality into Zelda, epitomizing her as the “First American Flapper” whose greatest fear was living a “sordid, colorless life.” Still, for the most part, the cast, including supporting members Clark Carmichael, Jamie LaVerdiere, and Mandy Bruno in a versatile rotation of roles, are more believable as singers rather than actors.

To be sure, the music in this production can actually be quite lovely. Harrow has an ear for creating luminous melodies, and her more somber pieces, such as “My Lost City,” “My Swan,” and “Until It Comes Up Love,” shine with the support of a sophisticated jazz ensemble. It is in these songs that we catch a glimpse of the tragic weight of genius, the heartbreak of reaching the top early in life and having no other place to go but down. “It’s a terrible time when you realize your triumphs are in the past, so fast,” sings Fitzgerald. If only he knew how immortal his triumphs would truly become.

*************

This Side of Paradise plays at the Theater at St. Clement’s (46th St. between 8th and 9th) through May 9, 2010. Tickets: $65.

Last 5 posts by Pearl Chen

Posted on 27 Apr 2010 at 6:14pm
Read also
15% Off All Golf Balls

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.