The Great Gatsby fails to connect

Theatre Calgary production has too much song and dance

Leonardo DiCaprio was initially wary of taking on the title role in the 2013 film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby because it felt too “voyeuristic.”

“The way Fitzgerald writes these scenes you feel like you’re in the room with them” he said “so everyone has their own intimate relationship with these.”

No doubt Theatre Calgary hoped to capture this very feeling with director Kim Collier’s production of the classic capitalizing on the renewed interest sparked by Baz Luhrmann’s recent film. While it couldn’t possibly compete with that extravaganza it could — theoretically at least — offer audiences a greater sense of intimacy. But instead of taking advantage of theatre’s natural opportunity for connectedness the play feels more artificial than the film over the top where it should be restrained.

That The Great Gatsby underwhelms isn’t necessarily all Theatre Calgary’s fault. Much of the action in the novel is told by Nick Carraway (Jonathan Young) rather than shown making an awkward fit for the stage. The action which occurs firsthand poses problems for any theatrical adaptation as well with its elements of magic realism. The lavish parties Jay Gatsby (Bob Frazer) hosts suggest opulence on a scale a play can’t hope to match.

It’s not for lack of trying in this case. But a water fixture onstage for instance that triples as a bathtub fountain and swimming pool seems more hokey than impressive as does a propeller meant to represent a plane. Leaving such details to the imagination would’ve been just as effective.

No one could accuse this production of being subtle. Lest we forget the play is set during the Jazz Age a near-constant stream of singing and dancing punctuates the action (on multiple occasions in fact Nick and Gatsby appear poised to break into song). Moments that call for silence are too often filled with music too many lines that could merely be spoken are shouted and rhetorical questions frequently meet with obvious answers.

Many of the play’s performances thus feel overstated. One can only imagine the suave charm in Gatsby that wooed Daisy Buchanan (Amy Rutherford) — and later Nick — since there’s little evidence of it in Frazer’s performance. Far from possessing the “smile of eternal reassurance” Nick describes this Gatsby seems nervous and edgy as if he’s never bought into his own myth. The climactic hotel room confrontation between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan (Craig Erickson) thus largely falls flat because there’s no illusion to destroy.

Despite this clumsy staging Fitzgerald’s underlying themes still come through even if the play seemingly doesn’t trust audiences to elucidate them. When Nick famously observes that Tom and Daisy are “careless people” he seems not quietly resigned but rather enraged as though this realization comes as a shock.

For all its flaws one might still observe as Nick Carraway says of Gatsby that the play “turns out all right in the end.” But that’s a pretty low bar for an adaptation of one of the best American novels of the 20th century.