By Steve Sucato
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
A wistful faraway gaze toward a distant light served as an introduction to choreographer Jorden Morris’ ballet adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” this past Friday. The lonely image of wealthy socialite Jay Gatsby would reoccur throughout the world-premiere production performed by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre with the PBT Orchestra — symbolizing perhaps the unattainable happiness that haunted Fitzgerald’s most famous fictional character’s life.
The fourth different The Great Gatsby production PBT has mounted dating back to 1987, the ballet in two-acts took the approach of telling Fitzgerald’s complicated tale by adopting a more chronological approach while still remaining faithful to the 1925 novel.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s The Great Gatsby with the PBT Orchestra continues through February 17, Benedum Center, 237 7th Street. Tickets $28-112. pbt.org or 412-456-6666.
Recounting the exploits of the “Roaring Twenties” Gatsby’s efforts to win back former lover Daisy Buchanan, the ballet unfolds like a literary soap opera where infidelity was commonplace and its effects, tragic. In keeping with Fitzgerald’s novel, Morris uses the character of Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway (Luca Sbrizzi), as a de facto narrator or, in this case, a witness to the action as the character appears in the bulk of the ballet’s scenes.
Danced to an original “moviesque” score by composer Carl Davis with period costumes and impressionistic sets and drops by the late Peter Farmer (culled from PBT’s prior Gatsby productions), the ballet began with soldier Gatsby’s (Lucius Kirst) and Daisy’s (Alexandra Kochis) backstory as a couple in Louisville in 1917. The pair danced a brief, but tender, pas de deux revealing the couple’s love affair and how they parted when Gatsby goes off to war in Europe. The scene, setting the stage for what was to come of the pair later in the ballet, offered little insight into the mysterious Gatsby as a character; a theme that would continue throughout the ballet’s first act.
Kirst, a five-year corps de ballet dancer with PBT in his biggest leading role, embraced the elite station and aloofness of Gatsby to the point of the character lacking any charisma. He was not alone. Morris’ choreography, a mix of neo-classical ballet and contemporary movement styles, rarely elicited passion early on in the main character portrayals. Violent arguments between Daisy and her philandering, hot-headed husband Tom Buchanan (William Moore), him with Gatsby, and Tom with his mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Gabrielle Thurlow), felt unnaturally restrained. The ballet’s brisk pace and sheer amount of content left little room for character development. That led to a lack of investment in and empathy for several of the main characters, especially Gatsby.
The ballet was its most entertaining at the end of the first act and its summer party scenes at Gatsby’s mansion. A trio of bumbling caterers, a flirtatious pair of leggy twins (Danielle Downey & Marisa Grywalski) and a sleek and elegant swimmer girl (Emily Simpson) led a host of interesting characters at the party. In the best dancing of the ballet, Morris creates a marvelously-crafted and jazzy flapper dance, that dazzles like a show-stopping production number in a Gene Kelly movie, to greet Gatsby’s grand entrance into the party.
The momentum continued in Act Two, with dramatic scenes of confrontation, love and lust which finally brought depth to the characters. The act began with a surreal scene recapping the various romantic entanglements of characters and revealing, in a marvelous duet between Kirst as Gatsby and PBT ballet master Steven Annegarn as mobster Meyer Wolfsheim, how Gatsby became wealthy in the bootlegging business. In it, Morris’ choreography and Davis’ score for Wolfsheim, referenced Tevye’s “If I Were a Rich Man” dance from Fiddler on the Roof.
Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy culminates in a slightly more playful Romeo & Juliet-like bedroom scene where they rekindled their romantic relationship in a whirlwind pas de deux between Kirst and Kochis. The pair was splendid, especially Kochis whose adept acting skills and stage presence captivated. After realizing her commitment to Tom and rejecting a life with Gatsby, Daisy while driving Gatsby’s car, accidentally hits and kills a distraught Myrtle, who had been jilted by Tom. A Jud Fry-like character from the musical Oklahoma, Myrtle’s husband George Wilson (Jake Unger) takes her death hard, blaming Gatsby avenges her death by shooting him. The ballet ends with Carraway at Gatsby’s funeral, mourning the loss of his friend and a poignant image inferring Gatsby’s soul finally reached that light in the distance and, with it, the happiness that eluded him in life.