F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby seems to cry out for expansive film treatments: The novel has been made into films in 1926, 1949 (with Alan Ladd as Gatsby), 1974 (Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy) and 2013 (Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, directed by splashout cinema king Baz Luhrman).
But the version coming to Lexington this weekend is on stage. It's a challenge, the director and playwright say, but also an opportunity to make the doomed love story of millionaire Jay Gatsby and wronged wife Daisy Buchanan, as narrated by Nick Carraway with a backdrop of Roaring Twenties excess, more intimate.
Some of the signature Gatsby images — such as the sign with the giant glasses of T.J. Eckleburg — appear as projections in the stage play, as does a scene of people dancing.
"It looks like there are a lot of people on stage," director Greg Johnson says.
Playwright Simon Levy says he has not seen the Montana Repertory Theatre production of his Gatsby adaptation, but has also adapted Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night and The Last Tycoon for the stage, so he has substantial experience translating Fitzgerald for theatergoers.
"Part of the challenge of any adaptation is to try to be as true to the source as you can," Levy says.
Even so, he added, some choices have to be made, "filtered through the artistry and imagination of the person doing the adapting."
Johnson says that the director's choices include the size of the cast — nine, in this adaptation — with some actors playing as many as three parts over the course of a single performance.
For example, Johnson says, Colton Hochhalter, the actor playing organized crime kingman Meyer Wolfsheim, also plays the character of Mr. McKee (described by Fitzgerald as "a pale, feminine man") and the police officer at the end.
"He has three very distinct voices, three very distinct costumes," Johnson says. "It's kind of an actor's dream. ... It's part of the fun for the audience, too. It becomes very theatrical. Suspension of disbelief is required."
Kentucky residents attending The Great Gatsby will see that a scene of Gatsby and Daisy meeting in Louisville, Daisy's hometown, is in the play — an element out of sequence with the main action of the narrative, but included to show the long infatuation that the two characters share.
The play also gives more weight to the character of Daisy — married to the brutish Tom Buchanan, ultimately unable to resist taking an easier if more tragic way out.
"Ultimately for me it is the love story between Gatsby and Daisy, to give equal weight to Daisy and maybe a little more because she is the problem in the play," Levy says. "She is the character around which all the other characters are drawn."
Two of the novel's most famous passages also figure into the play, Levy says. That includes the passage where Nick describes Tom and Daisy as "careless people .. (who) smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
It also includes the famous final sentence. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
"That was one of the thrills of doing that adaptation, how you take the prose and make it dialogue," Levy says. "I try to tie it into the emotional life of the character."
Johnson says that Lexington "is one of my favorite stops."
In 2017, the company celebrates its 50th anniversary.
"We're sort of up in the air" about what will be the 50th anniversary show, he says.
Figuring into the consideration is a longtime favorite, the company's production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Johnson says it is "always a big seller, our hallmark show."