January 25, 2020 | Jessica McFarland
Considered by many to be The Great American Novel, Fitzgerald’s jazz age classic gets a new interpretation at Saginaw’s Pit & Balcony Theatre. If any of you somehow missed your high school required reading, The Great Gatsby follows Midwestern naif Nick Carraway in the summer of 1922 as he moves to New York City and becomes embroiled in the loves and scandals of the West Egg upper class.
Also populating the story are his dreamy cousin Daisy, her brooding husband Tom, his lower class mistress Myrtle, a disaffected friend Jordan, and the mysterious millionaire next door, Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is obscenely rich and spends his wealth on lavish parties that he never attends, always hoping that his old flame Daisy will show up. Nick provides the link Gatsby needs to finally reconnect with Daisy, but as their love affair blooms again, secrets and tragedies threaten to tear them apart.
In many ways it’s a novel about ambition - is Gatsby in love with Daisy, or the life of wealth and respectability she represents? Fittingly, director Todd Thomas has taken on an ambitious interpretation of this tale, complete with a three piece onstage jazz band, several choreographed numbers, and what seems like a dozen moving set pieces constantly rearranging themselves through the script, adapted for the stage by Simon Levy. As far as book adaptations go, it’s a pretty good one - Fitzgerald’s poetic language remains, and there’s enough action that the bits of narration we get are refreshing rather than draggy.
There are also some excellent performances here. An obvious standout was Jordan Reed playing the titular Gatsby - he absolutely embodies the character with charm, romance, and beautifully intentional movements - the way he uses his hands especially is a treat to watch, and the mark of a very talented actor. He even makes Gatsby’s iconic use of the term “old sport” seem both natural and affected. Another standout is Spencer Beyerlein as Daisy’s brutish husband Tom. The Old Money to Gatsby’s New, Beyerlien perfectly portrays a man who senses his way of life is dying and lashes out with everything he has to keep it. A third standout is Ekia S. Thomas as Tom’s married mistress Myrtle. She absolutely owns the stage every moment she is on it, and her facial expressions are captivating. Danielle Katsoulos has a difficult job with the complicated Daisy - she is so busy being everything other people would want that she has completely lost control of her own life. Katsoulos’ interpretation verges on someone suffering from bipolar disorder and can be a little disorienting when a swing happens mid-sentence, but she has some truly exceptional moments especially in the tea scene with Gatsby, which was worth the price of admission alone. The cast is rounded out by Blayne Adams, Joseph McGuire, Gio Rose-Anderson, Natalie Schwartz, Jeff Rogner, and the Dance Ensemble.
The decision to double the dance ensemble as the crew meant that they were truly hopping. The choreography by Kaitlin Brunette was very athletic and fun to watch, although it felt a little presentational within the context of the story, especially given the overall lack of ambient “party noises.” The jazz trio of Dave Miller, Steve Nyquist, and Jacob Wisenbach were excellent, playing an appropriate selection of standards that really added to dance scenes and transitions. My issue was with these transitions as a whole - there are a lot of them, and any time you start rolling pieces across the stage sound becomes an issue. In order to keep the excellent pacing and embrace the memory/dreamlike feel to the story, Thomas had to run over quite a few of the lines, and the crew struggled to make the set pieces fit correctly on several occasions. It is an ambitious idea, and hopefully through the run of the show it will become more polished.
Lights by Bailey Banks were heavily gold/sepia toned, lending an old-timey atmosphere to the story. Sound by L’Oreal Hartwell featured several effects as well as stage mics, and the results were overall positive. Hair and makeup by Hope Brown were mostly excellent, although I found the look for Jordan to be a little anachronistic especially compared to the attention to detail with the other actresses. Costume designer Robin Noah had her work cut out for her with all the changes, and the results ranged from passable to excellent, with special kudos for every look worn by Daisy, as well as the menswear, and Jordan’s party looks. Set was designed by Amy Spadafore and coordinated by Ken Duby, and there was some nice detail work by artist Mary Swift, especially on the faux marble floors. Props were by Jacob Pearsall.
The creative team for Gatsby clearly went all-out for this production, bringing some new elements to a familiar story and creating beautifully small moments in the scope of such a larger-than-life tale. Thomas keeps the pacing tight but never rushed, and has clearly given a lot of thought to the deeper messages of this timeless tale. Bells and whistles aside, this is a strong script with an extremely talented cast, crew, and creative team at the helm. If you’re looking for a good night of theatre, look no further - just be sure you have enough time to go out afterward for drinks and to rehash the meaning of the green light or TJ Eckleburg’s eyes!