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Arizona Theatre Company

'Gatsby' is great despite strange denouement

Odd ending in otherwise amazing and mostly magical bit of theatre

The stage version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” portraying the shallowness of the 1920s nouveau riche, faithfully follows the well-known novel. The high-value production and well-crafted adaptation ends with an odd take on the book’s denouement, literally turning cartoonish. The strange finish to an otherwise amazing and mostly magical bit of theatre should not be cause to miss this show, however.

First published in 1925, to a respectable but not earth shattering reception, “The Great Gatsby” has come to define perceptions of the Roaring '20s for subsequent generations. Its cultural niche was aided by widespread free distribution to troops during World War II, making it a cultural touchstone.

book depicts the extravagant lifestyle and amoral behavior of the wealthy during Prohibition, drawn from Fitzgerald’s own experience living among the well-to-do on Long Island.

Setting aside questions about the need to modularize successful works into other media, several elements of the novel would seem to defy translation to the limitations of the stage: the neighborhood of mansions, Gatsby’s extravagant parties, travel scenes by car and hydroplane, the murder of Gatsby in his swimming pool.

This adaptation by Simon Levy is the first one officially authorized by the Fitzgerald estate. It completes a trilogy of Fitzgerald adaptations by Levy, following stage versions of “Tender Is the Night” and “The Last Tycoon.”

In “The Great Gatsby,” Levy shrewdly brings narrator Nick Carraway out on stage while the opening words of the novel appear typed across the curtain. Our first glimpse of Gatsby himself is vague and mysterious, as he becomes visible through the curtain in a handsome combination of lighting and staging to create a 3D effect.

The action quickly shifts to introduce Daisy Buchanan, Nick’s cousin from Louisville; her husband, Tom, who was a classmate of Nick’s at Yale; and Daisy and Tom’s guest, lady pro golfer Jordan Baker. Here Levy elegantly summarizes the characters’ backgrounds and situations, including Tom’s affair with Myrtle Wilson and Daisy’s potentially explosive discontent. We also get a taste of Tom’s Aryan supremacist beliefs, Jordan’s easy-going attitude and everyone’s intake of alcohol, despite it being an illegal substance.

We are subsequently introduced to rich and enigmatic Jay Gatsby; Myrtle’s working class husband George; and the novel’s major plot twist. It turns out that Gatsby and Daisy were in love while he was stationed near Louisville before being sent overseas in World War I. When Gatsby finally returned years later, Daisy, tired of waiting, had married Tom. Gatsby, we learn, is an extravagant stalker whose energies, including his parties, are aimed at reuniting with Daisy.

Gatsby enlists Nick’s help to re-enter Daisy’s life, which occurs in a marvelous scene that captures the synchronicity of weather to mood that is a motif in the novel. (Another motif, geography, is also incorporated into the play, name-checking business-oriented Chicago, small town Louisville and sinful San Francisco.) Together again, Daisy and Gatsby finally appear to be closing in on happiness as Act I ends.

Act II opens with a short dance sequence, then moves quickly to illustrate the major plot points: the battle between Gatsby and Tom for Daisy’s love, Nick’s rejection of the amoral Jordan, an ill-fated excursion to New York in both Gatsby’s distinctive yellow Rolls Royce and Tom’s blue coupe, and Myrtle’s being killed by Gatsby’s car with Daisy behind the wheel. Soon, grief-stricken George, believing Gatsby responsible for his wife’s death, tracks him down and shots him in his status symbol swimming pool.

The play closes with a return to Nick’s narration, describing Gatsby’s pitiful friendless funeral, Tom and Daisy’s escape from the scandal. Gatsby is again glimpsed through the curtain as the words of the novel reassert themselves, typed on the screen. In a poetic visual conclusion, the words become animated, turn into a butterfly and fly away.

This show is full of magical moments like that. Director Stephen Wrentmore and scenic director Yoon Bae made creative use of the rotating stage throughout to transition smoothly between scenes and enhance the feeling of movement.

A version of the book’s original iconic cover, disembodied eyes looking through spectacles, is projected on the curtain. Later, the eyes (which may be the eyes of God) become animated, as if watching the audience, in a wonderful effect. When Gatsby takes Nick out in his hydroplane, two anonymous women flank them, holding up representative biplane wings, which then delightfully transform into taxi cab headlights as the two men continue their journey. The yellow Rolls Royce “drives” across the stage.

The subtle and varied lighting by Dawn Chiang, period-evoking costumes by David Kay Mickelsen and screen projections by Lara Kaminsky are all textbook examples of craft perfectly in tune to enhance the overall production.

The critical problem occurs during the shooting scene. Talking with Nick after the accident, Gatsby “leaps” into an implied swimming pool as the stage goes black for a moment. The actor is replaced by a projection of a stylized abstract figure floating in blue, which George shoots. It’s jarring for several reasons. After so many literal and very inventive interpretations of the text, this is the first abstract representation. Although projections have been integral throughout, this is the first time a character has interacted with them. After so many brilliant turns of Fitzgerald’s words into succinct on-stage moments, a voiceover description of the denouement, Gatsby’s ironic death, literally robs the story’s peak action of any stage presence.

Monette McGrath shines as Daisy Buchanan, imbuing her with an energy that makes her simultaneously wonderfully alive and desirable, but dangerously on the edge of a breakdown. Sofia Jean Gomez makes Jordan Baker’s casual attitude smolderingly sultry. Marta Reiman, as Myrtle Wilson, demonstrates the blatant erotic distance between sultry and slutty.

The male leads seemed slightly less in command on opening night. William Peden as Tom Buchanan and David Andrew MacDonald as Jay Gatsby engaged more in a dance than a fight for the woman they love, generating only intermittent tension and menace. Zachary Ford perhaps had opening night jitters, causing some minor dialogue flubs. In any case, all three male lead characters felt more two-dimensional, less vivid than the three female leads.

This production of “The Great Gatsby” is worth seeing even for those not familiar with the novel.

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Though the book is still deserves reading, think of the play as the most delightful, animated Cliffs Notes you’ll ever find. The show has quality professional acting, exceptional stagecraft, and with the one notable exception, highly creative writing and direction. It is a sumptuous production that joyfully demonstrates the strengths that the stage brings to storytelling, even to a masterwork like Fitzgerald’s hallowed novel.

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If you go

  • What: “The Great Gatsby,” presented by Arizona Theatre Company
  • When: Evening performances are Tuesday through Saturday, March 6-10 and Wednesday through Saturday, March 14-17. Matinee performances are Wednesday, March 7, Saturday and Sunday March 10-11, Wednesday and Thursday, March 14-15 and Saturday, March 17. Curtain times for evening and matinee performances vary.
  • Where: The Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Avenue
  • Tickets: Reserved seats are $31 to $56, with discounts available for seniors, students and military. Tickets available through the ATC box office, 622-2823 or at Ticketmaster.