ORLANDO — Legend has it that author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died in 1940, thought he had been a failure as a writer because his 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby” had sold poorly and gotten mediocre reviews when it was first released. Turns out the book was ahead of its time, and would later become acclaimed as a literary classic.
Brought to the stage at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, courtesy of an adaptation by Simon Levy, the theater provides a handsomely mounted and wonderfully acted saga that captures the feel of the Roaring Twenties and the rise of the Jazz age. It was a decade of great prosperity when lavish parties were the norm, and even though it was the era of Prohibition, booze flowed freely.
“The Great Gatsby” has traditionally been viewed as a book about how corrupting the pursuit of the American Dream can turn out to be, and it’s true that when young Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate from the Midwest and a World War I veteran, arrives in the town of West Egg, Long Island, he has a sense of wide-eyed optimism about his future in this economically booming decade.
Nick notices the wild parties being thrown at the home of his neighborhood, a mysterious, enigmatic, but handsome and charming man named Jay Gatsby. Nick slowly gets drawn into a world of endless parties, beautiful women, and secret speakeasies where alcohol is always being served. At first excited to be a part of this glitzy atmosphere, Nick starts to become more disillusioned when Gatsby’s infatuation with a married woman, Daisy Buchanan, provokes the wrath of her rich husband, Tom, who sets out to find dirt on Gatsby — and succeeds. Tragedy awaits them all.
With a spectacular number of costumes from that decade, the music of the era, and even the dances that were so popular then, Orlando Shakes does an excellent job putting the audience right into the summer of 1922. And while the ending is deeply moving, thanks to the powerful acting by the cast, you might also be left shaking your head a bit at the notion of watching Nick’s innocence and idealism get corrupted by decadence. Because seen nearly 100 years later, a lot of what made Gatsby and his lifestyle seem so decadent then is pretty tame nowadays.
It’s true that Gatsby, who has a far more modest past than he initially admits, has earned his millions in ways that social moralists wouldn’t approve of. On the other hand, if wealth means people are free to drink when alcohol has been banned, chase pretty women, commit adultery and laugh off society’s moral codes, safe to say most TV producers today would find these scandals too tame to employ as the plot line for an evening drama.
And while Prohibition is long gone, today’s culture wars have shifted to issues that would have seemed unimaginable back in 1922: gay marriage, legalized marijuana, whether to spy on Americans’ emails in an effort to stop terrorism, requiring businesses to fund abortions as part of womens’ health plans, etc. Gatsby’s controversies have got nothing on the Trump Era.
A lot of the subjects that Fitzgerald highlighted don’t have as much relevance today; one exception is Tom Buchanan’s frequently spouted racist attitudes and his view that whites are the superior race and need to stand up for that — an eerie echo of some of the nationalist sentiments on display in the 2016 presidential campaign.
But “Gatsby” doesn’t seem so much interested in politics as in the idea of wealth eviscerating wide-eyed idealism. Still, you get the sense that today, Nick would be far more jaded after college and less likely to care about Gatsby’s wicked ways.
It’s hard to disagree with any of the choices made on this production by the director, Anne Hering, not least of which are her casting decisions. Matthew Goodrich as Gatsby and Buddy Haardt as Nick lead a superb group of actors, and considering that both their roles could have become archetypes, they’re excellent at presenting their characters as real, vivid people.
You’re also likely to be impressed by Christian Ryan as Tom, a man who seems always on the verge of a violent rage, and Ryan is effectively intimidating, even a bit scary, at times. Equally impressive is Jacob Dresch as George Wilson, a working class mechanic who is barely able to survive economically, and one of the few characters in the play outside of Gatsby’s social class. George could have been played as a stereotype of a blue collar schmo, but Dresch provides a stunning array of gut-wrenching emotions in the play’s tragic final scenes.
Regardless of whether you find Fitzgerald’s story to be something of a time capsule, with themes that seem quaint by today’s standards, the production itself and the cast are a marvel to watch, and this is a thoroughly enjoyable walk back to an era when a lot of people still believed that starting life with high ideals meant a great moral society was there for the taking.
“The Great Gatsby” runs through March 26 at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St. Performances are at 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. shows for senior matinees on March 1, 21, and 22. There will also be a Talk Back Performance on March 5 at 2 p.m., followed by The Great Gatsby Dance Party on March 9 at 5:30 p.m., when audiences will be given a 1920s themed dance class inspired by Fitzgerald’s book, and led by choreographer Richard Lamberty. Participants will learn steps to the Charleston, the Waltz, the Turkey Trot, and the Shimmy. After a short dance tutorial in a studio rehearsal hall, participants will get to practice the dances from the production on the set of “The Great Gatsby.”
Orlando Shakes also announced at the start of Friday’s show that their fall lineup would include productions of “Man of La Mancha” and “The Hounds of Baskervilles.”
For reservations of tickets, log on to http://orlandoshakes.org/ or call 407-447-1700.
Conclusion: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” has some dated themes, but the production by the Orlando Shakespeare Theater has a terrific cast and first-rate production values.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Koby’s New Home”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.