By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010; C01
Venus in her clamshell could hardly have been more fabulous than blues singer E. Faye Butler in her feathered cloche, rising from the orchestra pit on an elevated lift with the rest of her band. As she growled out the vintage come-on "I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl," with her hips grinding and her voice gurgling with raunchy wit, Butler was the unrivaled showstopper Thursday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.
That the show she stopped was a ballet -- the world premiere of the Washington Ballet's "The Great Gatsby" -- tells you just what kind of a crazily ambitious, go-for-broke production Septime Webre, the company's artistic director, has pulled together. "Gatsby," which continues through Sunday, is a gutsy and stylish display of the sound and energy of the Jazz Age, a colorful 1920s revue built around the bones of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. It is also -- and significantly -- an infusion of new blood in the otherwise confined and inbred world of full-length story ballets. And the company can take heart that the ballet is the best-selling in its history outside of the perennial favorite, "The Nutcracker."
With live music, generous dancing, high spirits and some memorable moments of silent, spot-on acting, "Gatsby" goes down like champagne. But while the ballet is an affectionate tribute to the book, it doesn't quite hit the emotional notes. The book's sense of doom, its heartaches, crushed dreams and lingering heroism, are only half-etched, if at all. Webre's work is best understood as a sprawling and mostly raucous package of singing, dancing and great jazz, like a Cotton Club pageant with personalities.
Butler has sung for the company before (in Trey McIntyre's 2000 "Blue Until June"), but even by the imaginative standards of Webre's past programs, her contribution to "Gatsby" represents one of the man's hottest ideas. Fitzgerald's golden prose gave Webre the outlines of his story, but he had to find its musical contours on his own. Bringing in Boston-based jazz expert Billy Novick and his band, along with Butler and the caramel tenor of crooner Will Gartshore, was a brilliant move.
The result is that for its musical splendors alone "Gatsby" is a remarkable event, an evening of explosive, ticklish and swooning live jazz (songs of the era, filled out with Novick's compositions), played with a verve to spark your thirst for hooch. Especially wonderful are the dark and cinematic early Ellington tunes ("East St. Louis Toodle-oo," "Saturday Night Function"), percolating jammers such as Tommy Dorsey's sly "It's Tight Like That," and Irving Berlin's ruminative "What'll I Do?" -- which echoes through the ballet as the theme for Jay Gatsby's romantic longings.
The drawback, though, is that the reliance on songs rather than extended compositions gives the production a choppy feel at times. Webre's concept follows suit.
This cast is a jittery bunch, with Olympian energy despite the heat of their Long Island summer: Swaggering Tom (Luis Torres) and his wife Daisy (Elizabeth Gaither); Daisy's friend Jordan (Jade Payette); Nick (Jonathan Jordan), a new arrival to the clique; and Gatsby (Jared Nelson), who fell in love with Daisy years ago and hopes to win her back. Oh, the fun they have! There's a clever, acrobatic sofa dance, another one atop the dinner table. Gatsby's grand parties are a whirl of Charlestons and fisticuffs, carried off with equal seamlessness and fire. (Peter Farmer's period sets and costumes are courtesy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.)
To help the story along, singer Gartshore makes a few appearances onstage as a narrator, reciting passages from the book. But curiously, the dancing sometimes runs counter to the plot. Take an early solo for Jonathan Jordan. It's showy, full of jumps and turns and makes for an odd character study for Nick, the serious, somewhat ill-at-ease newcomer.
Then there is the dance of grief for George, whose wife, Myrtle (Sona Kharatian), was Tom's mistress. Daisy kills her in a hit-and-run, and afterward, George, danced by the exceptional technician Brooklyn Mack, tears up the stage with the cleanest pirouettes you could hope for, flying leaps and a rocketing no-hands cartwheel. Who cartwheels in mourning? He looks like the happiest guy in the world.
Some of the best moments were not danced at all. At the end of that whoopsy-daisy number on the sofa, the phone rings and everyone knows it's Myrtle, calling for Tom. Gaither gives Torres a look of pure dread. She tries to catch his hand; he freezes her with his own stern look, and strides off to take the call. Payette scoots closer to Jonathan Jordan and leans ever-so-subtly toward his ear with a sidelong glance, touched with the love of scandal.
There are a few more instances like this -- I also loved the breathless silence when Gatsby is reunited with Daisy, and the way Nick rocked back on his heels, the awkward fifth wheel. But the emotional tension doesn't last. Throughout the work, momentum builds and fades in three-minute intervals -- as long as each song. In a flashback scene, Daisy falls for Gatsby, loses him to the war and meets his replacement, Tom, all in the space of a single tune. The result was that I watched the ballet, but I didn't always feel it.
Webre does a tremendous job at keeping the ballet in motion. A searing tango spells out the danger between Gatsby and Tom. A New York City street scene unspools like something out of "Guys and Dolls," with its mass of majorettes, stockbrokers and gangsters. At another point, a tap dancer -- Ryan Johnson -- also has time in the spotlight.
Delivering emotion is the hardest part in dance, when physicality can more readily fill up the stage. It's good to see Webre taking on the challenge, even if his "Great Gatsby" is more party than poetry. As a party, it's a seriously swinging affair.