Frank Loesser had it wrong. There’s wonderful music in the very sound of Gatsby, a name immediately conjuring images of power, prestige, wealth, infatuation, and mystery. As the seductive, titular focal point of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel, widely considered one of the greatest ever written, millionaire Jay Gatsby’s transformative history and romantic obsession is not lost in Wright State University’s current presentation. However, there are moments of detachment that could use a jubilant Jazz Age lift.
Breezily adapted by Simon Levy and directed by W. Stuart McDowell, “The Great Gatsby” embraces the effervescence of the Roaring Twenties in its fascinating account of love lost yet regained on Long Island as Gatsby reunites with beautiful socialite Daisy Buchanan, his one true love, after nearly five years. But trouble looms as Daisy’s brutish, bigoted husband Tom continually despises Gatsby’s advances and his bootlegging despite his own indiscretion with Myrtle Wilson, the long-suffering wife of a local mechanic. As Daisy becomes increasingly torn by her past and present passions, her cousin Nick Carraway, a meek, impressionable salesman from Minnesota and Gatsby’s wartime buddy, immerses himself into Gatsby’s exciting universe, narrating his eye-opening experiences with great wonder and ultimate dissatisfaction.
McDowell, known for helming history-conscious plays from “Les Misérables” to “Titanic” on a grand, sweeping scale, surprisingly dials it back here creating one of his most straightforwardly intimate, script-driven, scaled-down productions. His directorial flair is evident (the perpetual presence of Daisy’s green light, the lovely descending wardrobe in the Act 1 finale, Act 2’s climatic car accident, the finale scene recalling “Sunset Boulevard”), but a consistent sense of opulence and frivolity is missing which is unfortunate since this flashy material speaks to exuberant excess. Granted, McDowell wonderfully energizes the action with colorful flapper routines choreographed by Greg Hellems, but there aren’t enough of these lively depictions, especially in the slow-going, emotionally insular Act 1.
Nonetheless, McDowell’s period-appropriate cast, beautifully costumed by Mary Beth McLaughlin and dialect coached by Deborah Thomas, amiably embodies their iconic roles. The handsome Connor Lysholm is an understatedly suave, fittingly enigmatic Gatsby heightened with brooding magnetism and a dangerous edge. The striking Caitlin Geisser, truly compatible with Lysholm, is the epitome of sophisticated privilege although at times she seems overly self-absorbed to the point of coldness. The tough, intimidating Joey Logan gruffly fits the bill as arrogant, hotheaded Tom. As Nick, the very personable, vulnerable Ben Tracy narrates with joy and yearning in a delicate capacity as onlooker and participant. As Myrtle, the sultry, impressively authentic Madeline Sensenstein commands attention late in Act 2 opposite Christian Schaefer as Myrtle’s husband George. The fine players include Chelsea Hauptstueck (Jordan Baker), Nathan Pecchia (Meyer Wolfsheim), William Mendleson (Chester McKee), Brittany Williams (Lucille McKee), Taylor Benjamin (Michaelis), Zac Pruett (Waiter/Cop/Photographer), and flappers Danielle Bessler, Carrie Vobroker, Hannah Williamson, and Halee Aguenstein.
By and large, the essence of greatness permeates this “Gatsby” as a decent start to WSU’s 41st season.
“The Great Gatsby” continues through Oct. 4 inside the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are today at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 and 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm. The production is performed in 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $22 for adults and $20 for seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call WSU box office at (937) 775-2500 or visit www.wright.edu/theatre-dance-and-motion-pictures/performances/ticket-information