July 6, 2022

“The Great Gatsby” Opens Princeton Summer Theater’s Season; Live Music Enhances Adaptation of Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age Classic

“THE GREAT GATSBY”: Princeton Summer Theater has staged “The Great Gatsby.” Directed by PST’s 2022 Artistic Director Ethan Boll, the play with music has been presented June 24-July 3 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above: Narrator Nick Carraway (Jay White, center) encounters Jordan Baker (Megan Pan, left) at the home of his cousin, Daisy (Allison Spann, right). (Photo by Raquel Ramirez)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

A bit over a century ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived at Princeton University, which he attended from 1913-1917. As a student, the aspiring author wrote stories and poems for the Triangle Club, the Princeton Tiger, and Nassau Lit.

During his sophomore year, Fitzgerald returned home to Saint Paul, Minn., during Christmas break. There, he met and fell in love with Ginevra King. The Chicago socialite became the basis of several characters in Fitzgerald’s novels — particularly Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.

Although the 1925 novel is told from the point of view of Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway, Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship mirrors Fitzgerald’s courtship of King. Prefiguring a line in the novel, King’s father disdainfully told Fitzgerald, “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” (Eventually King married a wealthy Chicago businessman, and Fitzgerald married Zelda Sayre.)

In The Great Gatsby the now-wealthy title character buys a house across from Daisy’s home, with the express purpose of persuading her to resume their relationship. This arouses the jealousy of Daisy’s domineering and philandering husband, Tom, who contrives to eliminate his rival.

Almost a century after the publication of The Great Gatsby, a stage version of the classic novel has been presented at Fitzgerald’s alma mater. Making a welcome return following a (pandemic-enforced) three-year hiatus, the student-run Princeton Summer Theater (PST) has opened their 2022 season with Simon Levy’s adaptation, which received its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in 2006.

Levy successfully adapts the novel for the stage, succinctly highlighting the backstory and dynamics between the characters. He is faithful to the plot but does not follow the novel slavishly; he converts some of Fitzgerald’s prose into dialogue for the narrator, Nick Carraway, highlighting the character’s development.

PST’s production adopts Levy’s suggestion (printed in the script) to include live music; an onstage band performs before and during the performance. Saxophonist and clarinetist Henry Raker, drummer Paolo Montoya, and bassist Cliff Wilson — led by Music Director Ned Furlong — establish the grit and glamour of the Jazz Age.

The play opens with most of the characters indulging in raucous dancing. In imitation (but not a reproduction) of Francis Cugat’s iconic cover art for the original edition of the novel, a bespectacled pair of eyes punctuates a blue backdrop. These eyes appear to be keenly watching the proceedings — and the audience.

Nick (Jay White) also observes the scene, before delivering his opening monologue, in which he considers a quote from his father. “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone … just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” As events unfold, this advice is tested.

White captures Nick’s gentle but wry reserve, and the character’s gradual but steady disillusionment with the glitz and loose morals of those around him. Most of his lines are delivered with quiet deadpan. A pointed exception is when he snaps at Tom and Daisy that they are “careless people,” after their actions have caused multiple deaths. In the novel the line serves as narrative commentary, but Levy astutely turns it into dialogue. White lets Nick erupt with the line, making clear that the character has finally seen more than he can take. We see his evolution from an observer to a commentator who takes sides — and a principled viewpoint.

The production is fortunate that Allison Spann, who graduated summa cum laude in 2020, returns to play Daisy. As a student, Spann lent her acting and musical talents to several Theatre Intime and PST productions. Spann delivers a layered performance that conveys the extent to which Daisy covers deep pain with a veneer of vivacious cheerfulness.

Spann is given an opportunity to showcase her considerable singing talent. Prefacing one of many tense moments between Tom and Daisy, the latter sings “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” The selection is anachronistic. Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby wrote the original version, “Moonlight on a Meadow” in 1935, 13 years after the story’s time setting of 1922. Oscar Hammerstein II rewrote the lyrics as “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” in 1951. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to hear Spann perform the song; it fits her smooth voice, and her subtle but impassioned delivery.

Robby Keown, a PST veteran who has appeared in several independent films, also delivers an outstanding performance as Tom. Keown understands that the character’s behavior — which includes his paranoid racism; and his determination to use any means to wrest Daisy from Gatsby, even though he is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson (Violet Gautreau) — points to an overarching need for control. Keown is entertaining when depicting Tom’s disdainful elitism, and he makes the character’s abusive behavior toward Myrtle and Daisy devastating to watch, even though we are unsurprised by it.

In his PST debut, Xavier Jefferson (a junior at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) brings poise and dignified stage presence to the role of Jay Gatsby. His sincere, calmly insistent delivery of his lines succeeds in making the character into the vociferous Tom’s opposite. However, a heightened attitude of authoritative charisma would have improved the performance; Gatsby — whose past is veiled in mystery — needs to seem larger than life. Jefferson is at his best in scenes in which Gatsby confides his plans to Nick; and in conveying Gatsby’s instinct to protect Daisy from Tom.

Both Jefferson and Keown effectively use body language to convey their characters’ instant mutual distrust, and in letting their animosity simmer until it boils over in a scene in which Tom challenges Gatsby on his past — particularly his claims that he studied at Oxford — and his business dealings (his wealth comes from the bootlegging of alcohol).

The cast is ably rounded out by Devin Lee as George, Myrtle’s husband (who effects a significant plot turn); Megan Pan as Jordan Baker, Nick’s romantic interest and source of information about the Gatsby-Daisy-Tom triangle; Ally Wonski in a dual role as Mrs. McKee and Mrs. Michaelis; and Miquon Jackson as Wolfsheim, Chester, and a policeman.

Some of the actors need to pay constant attention to vocal projection, as dialogue is inconsistently audible. That said, the ensemble scenes are fun to watch; even with only nine cast members, Director Ethan Boll and Assistant Director Gabe Robare are able to convey the festive bustle of Gatsby’s parties — and the Roaring Twenties.

Becca Jones’ costumes also succeed in evoking the 1920s, especially the dresses. Set Designer Jeffrey Van Velsor furnishes the stage with forbidding dark columns that seem to reflect Tom’s rigid traditionalism, while curtain-backed windows suggest interiors such as Tom and Daisy’s home. The sound design — by Naveen Bhatia and Sophia Chaves-Gamboa — enhances the scene in which Gatsby is shot, right before he receives a phone call that will go unanswered.

The Great Gatsby explores themes that are as relevant today as they were a century ago. Juxtaposing Tom’s snobbish — and explicitly racist — traditionalism against Gatsby’s flamboyance, the novel explores issues of class, race, and gender relations. Tom’s speech in which he rails against “sneering at family life and family institutions,” despite his infidelity to Daisy, brings numerous politicians to mind.

Ultimately, the success of Levy’s adaptation, and PST’s presentation of it, is marked by the clarity with which these ideas are conveyed; and in using theatrical elements — especially live music — to place the audience in the world of the Jazz Age.

For information about Princeton Summer Theater’s upcoming productions visit princetonsummertheater.org.