The Arvada Center's Great Gatsby is not so great

The Arvada Center tends to do costume drama very well, and The Great Gatsby, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, is no exception. The costumes, by Clare Henkel, are lovely, and the production is filled with beautiful, stylized people, posing and languidly interacting. Central is charming Daisy, who — as you probably remember from high-school English classes — exudes a sense of privilege and money. She is married to Tom, also wealthy but a little blind, a little crude, fairly violent and quite a lot racist — and who probably doesn't deserve her. Unless she's not all that she seems. But there's a neighbor in their exclusive Long Island enclave who feels she should most certainly be his, and that's Jay Gatsby. The two were once deeply and romantically in love, but Daisy grew impatient when he went off to war, and she gave herself to Tom. Now Gatsby's back, having acquired immense wealth through shady and only partially specified dealings, living in showy splendor and ready to do whatever it takes to win Daisy back.

There's a subplot involving an affair Tom is having with a working-class woman named Myrtle — an affair that drives her husband, George, into frantic, futile rages, until his anger moves to the forefront in a flurry of violence.

All these goings-on are observed by Nick Carraway, Daisy's cousin and an impecunious outsider, who eventually takes up with Jordan Baker, a famed professional golfer who's a friend of Daisy's. Carraway is fascinated by the sheer opulence of the others' lives, but he becomes disillusioned when he realizes how corrupt they are.

The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, deals with the hollowness of the American Dream — that dream of rising from nowhere into great wealth — and presents Jay Gatsby as a fascinating figure because of his deep love for Daisy and his capacity for both self-delusion and creating brilliant illusions for others. The novel also emphasizes the contrast between his self-made, criminally acquired riches and the easy confidence bestowed by old money. Fitzgerald's gorgeous and intensely romantic prose creates an evocative heightened reality. Here's his description of lovely, tainted Daisy: "For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face ... then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk."

The problem with Simon Levy's adaptation, as with most adaptations of major literary works, is that, with the exception of short snippets, you lose the prose, and with it, the power of the original. During this production, you're engaged for a time just watching all these gorgeous people: the warmly beautiful Jamie Ann Romero as Daisy — and is there any other local actress who can charm audiences so utterly and so effortlessly? — and the elegant, coldly beautiful Audra Blaser, who plays Jordan; handsome Anthony Bianco as Gatsby. Then there's Steve Einspar as Gatsby's thuggish strongman, Meyer Wolfsheim; and C. Clayton Blackwell does yeoman service in showing the underlying vulgarity beneath Tom's surface smoothness. Graham Ward is appropriately pleasant and thunderstruck as ever-observant Nick.

But after a while you start questioning the simplistic plot and wondering why you should care about these folks' vapid, meaningless lives. The dialogue of the working-class characters is crude and broadly sketched, and director Gavin Mayer's staging of the violence is completely unconvincing — so much so that I clearly heard an audience member comment derisively, "Oh, look, he's not dead yet," as the mortally wounded Gatsby rose to his feet and then, with some satisfaction as he fell again, "Oh, now he is."

The Arvada Center tends to show huge, crowd-pleasing musicals on the main stage — though the recent End of the Rainbow was a laudably more risky choice. But the black-box theater where Gatsby is showing would seem the perfect venue for edgier fare, experimentation and surprise. This pretty, smoothly professional production of a forgettable script is a disappointment. There's too much focus on outward elements and too little on the things that count: intellect, heart and discovery.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman