“As of January first, it’s the twenties again!” declared Chad Henderson as he introduced Trustus’ latest production, “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s roaring twenties novel, adapted for the stage in 2006 by Simon Levy.
Almost a century after it was written, “Gatsby” deals with America’s continuing modern struggles with wealth and class, war and our treatment of veterans, marital infidelity, white supremacy, business ethics, transparency and the eternally insoluble question of whether money can buy happiness, or, as The Beatles parsed it, can it buy love?
The Great Gatsby is considered by many to be a contender for the title of The Great American Novel, and it has been transformed into several memorable, lavish films over the ensuing decades, most recently by director Baz Luhrmann in 2013 starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and by Francis Ford Coppola in 1974, with Robert Redford in the title role.
To rise to the challenge of the greatness of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby” director Henderson began with the only stage adaptation authorized and granted exclusive rights by the Fitzgerald Estate.
But then he immediately upped the ante by enlisting the talents of trumpeter and composer Mark Rapp as musical director (for a non-musical!) who brought original jazz music with the 5 piece on-stage combo ColaJazz. Henderson also brought aboard a crew of dancers from Columbia City Ballet, choreographed by Stephanie Wilkins, to portray the frenzied flappers at Gatsby’s legendary decadent parties.
Working with technical director Richard Kiraly, Henderson designed a simplified high-tech set of large projection screens to portray orgiastic jazz age parties, great halls filled with marble statuary, the streets of 1920s New York, a hydroplane rocketing over the ocean waves, Gatsby’s swimming pool, and of course the iconic eyes-and-eyeglasses sign advertising the wares of an oculist, standing in for the eyes of a judgmental God. The scenery can change with breathtaking speed and realism. Sound effects blend seamlessly with the constantly shifting locales and even special effects. Costumed members of the ensemble add or subtract furniture pieces in character as the finishing touches to each scene.
Both sides of the stage are framed by open quadrangles lined in incandescent bulbs, suggesting both a theatre marquee and the open covers of a book, out of which the story leaps.
The show starts with a stunning and unexpected spotlight vocal solo by one of the cast members singing a modern hit ballad that has been interpolated into the script. During the course of the show, other cast members step up to the ColaJazz microphone to sing musical commentary upon the drama unfolding on stage. This reviewer will leave no further spoilers as to the singers’ identities or the choice of songs, so as to maximize the surprising spontaneity for the audience.
In every rendition of “Gatsby” my favorite character winds up being Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, and he is ably brought to life by Jared-Rogers Martin. Fitzgerald’s prose flows clearly and gently from his voice, and he brings the wide-eyed earnestness of a young man from Minnesota to the mansions of the corrupt, lustful, and fabulously wealthy Long Island elites.
Jason Stokes brings broad-shouldered good looks and a resonant baritone voice to the title role, and is at once confident and forlorn. His tender infatuation for Daisy Fay Buchanan, played by Katie Leitner with a spoiled sensuality and tortured despair, drives all events in this drama. Richard Edward III is Daisy’s abusive, adulterous lout of a husband, Tom Buchanan, who also abuses his mistress Myrtle Wilson, played expertly and with earthy emotion by Raia Jane Hirsch. Brandon Chinn gives us Myrtle’s cuckolded garage mechanic husband, George Wilson, with a homespun pathos that masks his deeper moral code. The plum role of professional golfer Jordan Baker, Daisy’s long-time sardonic girlfriend, who later becomes Nick’s tempting girlfriend is played with layered subtlety and empowered command by Brittany Hammock. She is Fitzgerald’s acknowledgement of the evolving role of women in the 20th century. Elizabeth Houck, LaTrell Brennan, Josh Kern and Frank Thompson complete the acting ensemble with memorable performances in multiple roles, particularly Thompson’s shadowy criminal version of Meyer Wolfsheim, Kern’s flawless butler, Houck’s gossipy socialite and Brennan’s crystal clear exposition.
What sets this performance apart from others you might see on the local stage is the addition of music and dance to the production. While not a musical, per se, Britanny Hammock and Katie Leitner’s bonus vocal numbers accompanied by Rapp and band are exquisite, haunting audience members into the night. And Stephanie Wilkins’ choreography, set specifically on City Ballet principal dancers Bonnie Boiter-Jolley and Claire Rapp, along with Jordan Hawkins, Marian Morgan, and Katherine Brady, is a step above in terms of the professionalism typically brought to a local stage. Wilkins researched the dance styles of the period and incorporated elements of everything from the Foxtrot to the Black Bottom to the Lindy Hop in her choreography. The dancers blended well with the actors and created a large but well-managed multi-talented ensemble of performers.
(Full disclosure - Boiter-Jolley and Henderson are the daughter and son-in-law of Jasper editor Cindi Boiter.)
This is a “Gatsby” unlike any other you will see anywhere else, and it is here for only a brief time, ending April 27. The Sunday matinee audience honored the performance with a standing ovation. Waste no time reserving your tickets at www.trustus.org or call the box office at (803) 254-9732.
Trustus Theatre is located in Columbia’s Congaree Vista at 520 Lady Street.