Preview: Prime Stage's 'The Great Gatsby' takes cues from the novel and the Roaring '20s

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For a literary theater company such as Prime Stage, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is a must. The 1925 novel that has fascinated readers as much for its language as for its dramatic twist on the American dream continues to be required reading for students. As you read this, a stage version of "The Great Gatsby" is playing at London's Wilton Music Hall, while a splashy movie version by Baz Lurhmann is scheduled for a May 10 release -- that's summer blockbuster season, for a movie that is not derived from a comic book.

'The Great Gatsby'

Where: Prime Stage at New Hazlett Theater, North Side.

When: Friday through March 10. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $20 general admission, $25 at the door ($15 for seniors, $10 for students in advance); or call the New Hazlett at 412-320-4610.

Prime Stage was on the trail of a script used for a previous London production until the realization hit that it wasn't authorized by the Fitzgerald estate. With that in mind, the only choice was the Simon Levy adaptation that had been a success for Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre, a top regional company.

Director Richard Keitel viewed finding the Levy version as kismet. "I like this better," he said. "I find it hews most closely to the novel, using Fitzgerald's beautiful prose and language, and it's still dramatically effective."

Incorporating music of the time quickly became a key discussion between Mr. Keitel and his longtime sound designer, Angela Baughman. Their research revealed that Fitzgerald has been credited with coining the term "The Jazz Age," and they have partnered with the Pittsburgh Jazz Society to assure authenticity.

The director was looking for recordings of music to consider at Carnegie Library's Oakland branch when librarian Tim Williams said he knew of a great piano player, Tom Roberts, who has played at silent-movie screenings and on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson."

"Then, kismet again -- later that day, Angela said to me, 'I know this great piano player ...." She, too, was speaking of North Sider Roberts, a well-known interpreter of early jazz piano.

"He's playing tunes of the day live, and it's so wonderful. We just started to have him in rehearsal, and I find I want every scene underscored by the piano, because the music is so gorgeous and he's so talented."

The production promises to include the trappings of the Roaring '20s as set forth in the novel -- in other words, expect fringed flappers and dapper gents doing the Charleston and the fox trot. The story is set in 1922 and is narrated by Nick Carraway, a war veteran who comes to Long Island to visit his cousin Daisy and her husband, Tom, his classmate at Yale. Nick rents a small house next door to Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire, and becomes entangled in a world of extravagant parties and forbidden relationships.

Mr. Keitel, a professor at Point Park University's Conservatory of Performing Arts, said it's no wonder "Gatsby" continues to be a cultural stalwart and has been dubbed "The Great American Novel."

He ticked off reasons for the story's staying power, among them: Fitzgerald leaves mysteries about feelings and motivations for audiences to fill in the blanks. There's also the relatable story of aspiring for wealth as a means to gaining the American dream, which for Gatsby includes the woman of his dreams.

"There's a wonderful moment when Gatsby meets Daisy again," Mr. Keitel said. "We have three sold-out high school student matinees, and the awkwardness of Gatsby and Daisy meeting for the first time, I know the audience is going to connect. Gatsby is almost as nervous as if it's a first date."

The cast includes Sean Patrick Sears as Jay Gatsby, Andrew Swackhamer as Nick Caraway, Ryan Kearney as Tom Buchanan and Julia Warner as Daisy Buchanan.

"One of the things that's interesting, the character of Tom, Daisy's husband, makes some veiled and not-so-veiled racist comments," Mr. Keitel said. "Tom has a mistress and in the production, I've cast an African-American actress [Alexis Cash]. So that adds an interesting aspect to the play. There's a line where Tom says, 'Soon, they're going to allow intermarriage between black and white.' And another character says, 'We're all white here.' So I think it will have extra resonance for Pittsburgh audiences."


Sharon Eberson: First Published February 28, 2013 5:00 AM


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