Theatre brings ‘The Great Gatsby’ to the stage for final show of the season

“The Great Gatsby,” one of the most popular American novels of all time, has been made into various films, and now it’s time for the University of Rhode Island Theatre Department to bring it to the live stage.

The 1925 novel, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, revolves around multiple intricate characters living in “West Egg,” a fictional town in Long Island. It takes place in the summer of 1922, focusing on the mysterious millionaire known as Jay Gatsby and his past love with Daisy Buchanan. The story is full of plot twists and shocking moments, but is particularly interesting in the fact that the narrator, Nick Carraway, is intertwined in it all. Carraway is not one of the main characters, yet tells the story from a first-person perspective.

Bryna Wortman, associate professor and head of acting and directing programs at URI, said that the students proposed the idea of performing the play, and there was a lot of support for the show. Wortman is very excited because it’s “an enterprise that is extraordinarily challenging as a theatre piece.” For months, Wortman and their set designer Cheryl deWardener have been working together to create the multiple sets for each location of the play, while on a budget.

The department is using Simon Levy’s play adaptation, who suggested a music aspect to the show to display the feeling of Fitzgerald’s descriptive, lyrical prose. Wortman said she tried to incorporate music throughout the play since the setting is in the roaring ‘20s and the Jazz Age.

There are musical numbers from the time period incorporated, including dances like the Charleston, Foxtrot and Tango, along with scene shifts with applicable tunes.

Although the play and the novel each offer a different experience, Wortman said the play’s overall plot is not a change from the novel. She described the adapter as “very faithful in plucking the dialogue from the novel.”

She believes people will be able to relate to the play since it is such a beautifully written novel that has been so popular since it’s been published. Considering that it is the top American novel of the 20th century, she thinks every American person should be conscious of the book, and believes theatre is an exciting way to see an American story.

“I think that the URI Theatre program, our department, is really exceptional in what it puts forward,” Wortman said. “I’m very proud of the work that myself and my colleagues do, and I’m very proud of the students. They really have a wonderful work ethic and they’re extremely talented. They have a lot of aspiration and take on challenges and fulfill them beautifully.”

The student actors began working on the show on March 7 and have rehearsed every week for six days a week for at least four hours each night. Although they’ve only had around two months to pull the play together, Wortman and her assistant directors are struck with appreciation for how each actor is playing an intense role so well with maturity and authenticity.

There are multiple people involved with bringing the play to life, including deWardener, a URI alum and professional who designs the set and does the scene painting, and Valerie Ferris, a student choreographer. Additionally, there is a technical director, students who help build the set and a prop designer. One interesting addition to the play is a projection that will pinpoint the locale throughout the show so the audience will know where each scene is taking place – whether it’s the Gatsby Mansion or the Plaza Hotel suite.

The play includes 18 students in the cast ranging from freshman to seniors. She hopes that students from other departments would come and support the show since not only did the students put in a lot of effort, but because it’s a lot of fun to watch.

“I think that theatre is so different from either a novel or a film,” Wortman said. “It’s live theatre – it’s alive – they’re up there doing it in front of you. I think it’s exciting in it’s own way as a medium. You’re in the moment.”

“The Great Gatsby” play will take place at the Robert E. Will Theatre on April 20-22 and April 27-29 at 7:30 p.m., April 23 and 30 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for the public, $15 for seniors, URI faculty, staff and students.