By Richard Ades
Is it possible to sprain your hands by clapping too hard? I came close to doing that during Shadowbox Live’s new dance-centered drama, Broken Whispers.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Broken Whispers is Shadowbox’s take on The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale of envy and obsessive desire in the Roaring ’20s. Like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece has come to define a troubling era. Just as Twain’s young narrator stands in for America’s conscience in slave-holding, pre-Civil War America, Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway serves as our conscience and guide in a decade marked by greed and irresponsible hedonism.
Does Shadowbox’s version match the brilliance and depth of Fitzgerald’s original? Not overall, but it reimagines the tale in a way that is brilliantly innovative.
Whispers differs from Gatsby in several ways, but the most obvious is that the title character has been changed from a man who made his fortune from bootlegging to a woman who made it from running a brothel. Despite this, it sticks remarkably close to Fitzgerald’s tragic plot.
Our guide and narrator remains Nick (Robbie Nance), a young man who’s struggling to establish a career selling bonds in New York. Though not rich himself, he’s pulled into the lives of the wealthy by his cousin, Daisy Buchannan (Miriam King), and her husband, Tom (Andy Ankrom), as well as Nick’s high-living neighbor, Gatsby (Amy Lay).
It’s through Daisy and Tom that Nick meets and starts a relationship with a woman named Jordan Baker (Nikki Fagin). And it’s through Gatsby that Nick becomes involved in a dangerous attempt to reclaim the past.
Gatsby once had a secret fling with Daisy, but it ended when Daisy married Tom. Now that Gatsby has made her fortune, she believes she can win Daisy back, especially since Tom is a serial cheater who often deserts her for his married mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Edelyn Parker).
Changing a beloved novel into a dance-centered stage piece, and changing the sex of its protagonist along the way, is a tricky endeavor. That director Stev Guyer accomplishes it so well is a tribute to the skill of his cast and many collaborators, especially choreographer Katy Psenicka, writer Jimmy Mak and music director Matt Hahn.
First of all, the cast is great, especially when it’s expressing itself through dance. Psenicka’s choreography is stellar throughout, but if I had to pick my favorite sequences, it would be the two that define the rekindled relationship of Lay’s Gatsby and King’s Daisy. At first they dance lithely and joyfully to the tune of Foo Fighters’ Everlong. Later, suggesting a more intimate encounter, they perform moves that are both athletic and sensual to the strains of Sade’s The Sweetest Taboo.
In addition to dance, the actors rely largely on facial expressions and posture to define their characters, who are given only minimal dialogue. For the most part, they succeed.
Nance easily communicates the discomfort Nick feels as he’s forced into one morally questionable situation after another. As Tom, the philanderer who sometimes puts him in those situations, Ankrom wears the personality of a man who assumes his gender and wealth allow him to walk over anyone to get what he wants.
Like her literary counterpart, Lay’s Gatsby is self-contained mystery whose main attribute is her optimism that her eternal love for Daisy will be vindicated. Meanwhile, Fagin’s Jordan—unlike her own literary counterpart, whose motivations are hard to pin down—emerges as an instigator who takes perverse pleasure in others’ misfortunes.
My main disappointment among the characterizations is that King’s Daisy doesn’t exhibit as much charm as she does in the novel, perhaps because Shadowbox’s adaptation eliminates the flirtatious dialogue with which Fitzgerald defines her. This Daisy mainly comes across as a victim of Tom’s unfaithfulness, making it easy to understand her susceptibility to Gatsby’s advances but hard to understand why Gatsby is devoted to her in the first place.
As for the music, it’s just as impressive as the choreography it accompanies. Surprisingly, Shadowbox has opted to use relatively recent cover songs rather than actual music from the 1920s, but the songs are cleverly arranged and performed in a way that makes them seem almost era-appropriate. In the first song, Muse’s Feeling Good, vocalist Stephanie Shull’s voice even seems to be amplified in a way that suggests the tinny sound equipment of the period.
Shull is just one of the many fine singers featured. Others include Julie Klein, Noelle Grandison, Stacie Boord, Lukas Tomasacci, Guyer and Kevin Sweeney, who holds forth while manning the band’s keyboard. All are impeccable, but the closest thing to a showstopper occurs when Leah Haviland accompanies a Tom-Myrtle dance duet with the gorgeous Radiohead lament Creep.
Remember when I wondered whether you can sprain your hands by clapping too hard? This is why.
Haviland also sings the lead vocals when the band gives an inspired performance of the familiar George Michael hit Careless Whisper. Keyboardist Sweeney leads his fellow musicians through abrupt changes of tempo and rhythm as Fagin and other dancers perform the Charleston at one of Gatsby’s wild parties. Amazing!
Amazing in general is the amount of sound that comes from leader/guitarist Hahn’s four-piece band, which also includes standup bassist Buzz Crisafulli and drummer Brandon “Dreds” Smith.
Behind the scenes, Aaron Pelzak’s dark lighting sets the proper mood, while images projected on a video screen establish the proper place, allowing the production to skip over scene changes. A quartet of costume designers clothe the characters appropriately and often beautifully.
Seeing Broken Whispers is no substitute for reading The Great Gatsby. For one thing, the show only hints at the class consciousness and envy that are at the heart of the novel. But there’s no reason why you can’t do both. In fact, knocking off the novel—something that can be accomplished in an afternoon—may well add to your appreciation of one of Shadowbox’s most remarkable achievements yet.
Broken Whispers continues through Nov. 10 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, plus 7 p.m. this Sunday (Aug. 28). Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.