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Review: Strong performances, direction make 'Gatsby' a must-see

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An American classic comes to life on the Theatre Lawrence stage in Simon Levy’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” Strong performances, sure-handed direction, and clever sets make for an engaging evening at the theater.

Based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, the play tells the story of Jay Gatsby (Garrett Lawson), a millionaire World War I veteran who throws elaborate parties in 1920s New York. The source of Gatsby’s fortune is shrouded in mystery and rumor, but that only fuels the enjoyment of his events by the Jazz Age partiers he hosts.

The story is told (and in the case of the stage version, narrated) by Nick Carraway (Jake Smith), a Midwesterner who's come to New York to seek his fortune. Like Gatsby, he is a veteran of the war, and that’s instilled a certain restlessness in him. He rents a house next door to Gatsby in the fictional borough of West Egg, and spends time visiting his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Laura Brooke Williams) and her bigoted husband, Tom (Dan Heinz). One senses early on it is a loveless marriage — a fact that frequent house guest Jordan Baker (Sissy Anne Quaranta) confirms quickly.

Jordan is friends with Gatsby too, and the two of them conspire to use Nick to get Gatsby and Daisy together. Gatsby has been obsessed with Daisy since before the war, and they had promised to marry, but Daisy was mistakenly informed of Gatsby’s death.

While the story looks at first to be a romance, it rapidly transforms into a cautionary tale about greed, deception and hypocrisy. Whether you’re familiar with “The Great Gatsby” or not, you can feel the tragic ending barreling toward you with the speed of Gatsby’s flashy, yellow coupe.

This production is easily one of the finest Theatre Lawrence has staged in a long time, and it’s the best show yet to grace its new facilities at 4600 Bauer Farm Drive. The high quality begins with the cast. Four of the five main characters are played by actors with degrees in theater, and their training and talent really shines.

Smith is perfect as the naïve Nick, who gets caught up in the excess of Jazz Age New York and who is manipulated by the others. He is clearly uncomfortable as he watches the action swirl around him. He wants to be a part of it, but it is foreign to his Midwestern values. He cares deeply for Daisy and enjoys Gatsby’s company. He tries very hard to do what they need him to.

This conflict is played deftly by Smith. He never goes over the top with it, and he never gets swept off the stage by the large personalities of the other characters. It’s a strong performance by a talented actor.

Likewise, Lawson captures Gatsby’s smoldering obsession and flim-flam confidence adroitly. Whenever he is not with Daisy, he is the picture of easy success. He smiles, calls everyone "old sport” and floats around the stage as though everything were perfect. But he can barely think when he is with Daisy or talking about her. Lawson manages these two personalities with ease, flipping between the two expertly. It’s a complicated portrayal he never loses control of.

Quaranta is devilish as the scheming Jordan. She manipulates Nick nearly every step of the way, and Quaranta is smooth in her performance, making Jordan likeable enough that we are as drawn in as Nick. When Jordan’s own dark secret comes out, Quaranta makes it unclear whether she was simply cold and calculating or whether she had genuine feelings for Nick. It’s another deft performance in a host of them.

Williams is terrific as the heartsick and conflicted Daisy — trying to act happy while she knows her husband is betraying her; and endeavoring to support Gatsby’s play for her, even when she knows she can’t give herself to him as fully as he desires. Christie Dobson (another performer with a theater degree) is passionate and complex as Tom’s lover, Myrtle, playing skillfully the desperation of a woman who wants more out of life than she’s gotten. And Heinz is both thuggish as the soulless Tom, wounded when he learns Daisy has turned the tables on his philandering.

Jack Wright’s direction is superb. Not only does he pull stellar performances from his cast, he has an innate understanding of how to work Theatre Lawrence’s space. Rather than asking for huge sets to suggest the opulence of Gatsby’s world, he instead puts suggestive pieces onstage: an armoire filled with fine men’s shirts of every color, a giant staircase, a few pieces of furniture and a drink cart. All of these evoke the character of the places they represent without impairing sight lines on the theater’s giant thrust stage.

Clever use of projections by Phillip Schroeder also suggest place without being overly distracting — a country road, looking out on the harbor, golden statues in an elaborate garden. When Gatsby’s car comes rushing down the road in the second act, we see it from head on — just the headlights zooming toward us. It’s a nice piece of technical wizardry, and Wright and Schroeder deserve praise for its staging.

Another excellent technical aspect of the production is the score. Chuck Berg wrote original music for the show, which is mixed in with recordings of actual pieces from the period. Berg’s soulful saxophone underscores many of the key scenes, and it adds a flavor and character that really brings the story to life, lending it a depth many plays don’t have.

“The Great Gatsby” is an extremely ambitious production, and Theatre Lawrence pulls it off with aplomb as a result of bringing in talented, highly trained actors and a director with great vision for a rich, complex staging of an American classic. It is one of the highlights of the season and not to be missed.

“The Great Gatsby” continues at Theatre Lawrence with performances April 17, 18, 19, 25, 26 and 27. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except Sunday, April 27, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 843-7469 or online at theatrelawrence.com.

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