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Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' morphs into stage version with conviction

A stage version of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, “The Great Gatsby” opened April 11 at Theatre Lawrence, in Lawrence, KS.  The show runs through April 27.
A stage version of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, “The Great Gatsby” opened April 11 at Theatre Lawrence, in Lawrence, KS. The show runs through April 27.
Kay Traver

Theatre Lawrence's "The Great Gatsby"


Sometimes considered by many to be The Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, comes to Theatre Lawrence stage, adapted from the novel by Simon Levy to open April 11, in Lawrence, KS for a limited engagement, as announced by the Theatre directors.

Jack B. Wright, Professor Emeritus of Theatre and Film at the University of Kansas returns to Theatre Lawrence to direct. He is joined by local jazz artist and film professor Chuck Berg, who provides original compositions for the show. Berg is a voting member of NARAS (the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, which presents the Grammy Awards), and serves as chair of Film & Video for the International Association of Jazz Educators, a spokesman for Theatre Lawrence said.

In short, Gatsby and his friends live in the upscale fictional town of West Egg in the prosperous Long Island area in the summer of 1922 and the heart of the Jazz Age. Nick Carraway, (played by Jake Smith) the play’s narrator, takes a job in New York as a bond salesman. Carraway rents a small house on Long Island, next door to the lavish mansion of Jay Gatsby (played by Garrett Lawson), a mysterious millionaire who holds extravagant parties and passionately pursues the elusive Daisy Buchanan, Carraway’s cousin. Carraway visits his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (portrayed by Laura Brooke Williams), and her husband, Tom Buchanan (Dan Heinz), a college acquaintance of Nick's. The couple introduce Carraway to Jordan Baker (Sissy Anne Quaranta), an attractive, cynical young golfer with whom Nick begins a romantic relationship despite her having a husband, George Baker, played by Greg Nielson. Jordan reveals to Carraway that Tom has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Chirstie Dobson), and Nick is soon drawn into their world of obsession, greed and danger, according to info provided by Theatre Lawrence.

Theatre Lawrence’s additional cast included veterans Charles Whitman, Christoph Cording and Alicia Barlow Party-goers and dancers are played by veterans Mario Bonilla, Sonja Holmgren, Brian Duerksen, and Dennis Craig, along with newcomers Sheena Shearburn, Bria Collins, Heather Hinshaw and Stephaine Hopkins.

Overall, the stage version moves a lot faster than the novel. Fitzgerald’s novel, read by many during high school and early college years, just falls upon uninterested readers. Very little happens until the end. However, the stage version allows visual guides and realistic characters that come to life. That makes the production so appealing. Those who “read” The Great Gatsby and just didn’t get it, can now sit back, watch “The Great Gatsby,” and enjoy the story and the Jazz Age played out before them.

Taking a novel and adapting it to stage or screen does create other limitations. A lot of the symbolism forced upon readers and young minds never rears its ugly head in a stage production. In this production, the billboard with the eye glasses looking down, suggesting the eyes of the world or the eyes of God are never the focal point of the stage play. Yes, they are up in the corner of the rafters, looking down, but mostly, they go unnoticed. Only someone who knows and understands their significance will notice them.

So, sit back and enjoy Theatre Lawrence’s “The Great Gatsby.” Wright did a splendid job in casting the show. Strong performances came from his central characters.

Lawson performed as the rich and famous Gatsby saddened by a life of luxury but without love. His need for a friend (Nick) as a way to attract Daisy perfect for his flawed character.

Williams was the flighty and frivolous Daisy. She played the role with an air of “wherever the wind blows.” That’s the perfect personification of the flapper-era heroine with lack of determination.

As the villain, the booming voice and stage presence of Heinz was a great foil for the characters of Nick and Gatsby. Heinz never swayed from the hard-nosed cheater. He views his marriage vows with less importance than the polo ponies he prizes.

The narrator and focal point of the story, Nick Carraway, comes to life via Jake Smith. Smith nails his performance as the friend of Tom, the cousin of Daisy, and the friend of Gatsby. He navigates through the difficult characterizations with his understanding of the character.

Give lots of credit to the director knowing what he wants and helping the actors perform that specific character. And be also aware of the costumes that are pivotal to the story. “The Great Gatsby” without Jazz Age costumes would fail miserably. Theatre Lawrence’s version sparkled with the dazzle of flapper dresses. The smooth soothing sounds of Chuck Berg on the saxophone helped move the production along and tie pieces together very well.

The show entertains, for sure. “The Great Gatsby” takes a great American novel and adapts it quite well for the stage. Purists will find flaws in the adaptation, but that’s the failure of the script, not the actors, directors, or this production. Go and enjoy Fitzgerald on a smaller scale. The show is not lavish, like the movies of the classic novel, but the story remains strong and the focal point.

The production is directed by Jack B Wright, with choreography by Barbara Wasson. Original music is composed and played by Chuck Berg accompanied by percussionist Valance Penn. Jeff Blair is the Assistant Director and Brian Williams is stage manager. Jane Pennington is the show's costume designer. Set design by Jack Riegle and lighting design is by Phil Schroeder. Sound is designed by Bob Newton.

Remaining show dates are: April 17, 18, 19, 25, 26, 27 (No show Easter Sunday) with evening Shows: 7:30p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30p.m. For tickets, go to the website: or call the box office between 11:30-4:30, M-F, at 785-843-SHOW (7469). Theatre Lawrence is located at: 4660 Bauer Farm Drive, Lawrence, KS.

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