First, a confession: I was an English major. Reviewing the Sacramento Ballet's new production of "The Great Gatsby" choreographed by the inimitable Ron Cunningham is like nervously watching the film version of one of your favorite books, hoping against hope that it's good.
Fortunately, Cunningham's newest choreographic endeavor his first new ballet in five years is sensitive, thrilling, inventive and a pure joy to watch.
To be treated to this feast for the eyes and ears, we first had to get through George Balanchine's "Who Cares?"
In this piece, the corps is uniformly strong both Cunningham and his wife, co-artistic director Carinne Binda, seem to revel in each dancer's unique gait and limb length, showing them off to great advantage. But while the tepid Balanchine choreography was beautifully danced, it lacked the verve we would see later in Cunningham's original work.
"Who Cares?" comprises well-known Broadway tunes by George Gershwin all of the music is performed live by the sensational band Billy Novick's Blue Syncopators. While highlights included a pas de deux performed by Kaori Higashiyama and Rex Wheeler to " 'S Wonderful" and a number wherein the men seemed to emulate Gene Kelly in movement, personality and garb, "Who Cares?" is the appetizer compared to what's coming.
The main course is well worth the wait. "Gatsby" opens with such delicious splendor the costumes and stunning scenery are on loan from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre that it seems nearly impossible for the performance to continue apace, but it does. The haunting cautionary tale, considered Fitzgerald's greatest achievement, is lovingly and faithfully rendered through dance, song and in a daring departure from tradition that proves rather effective narration.
Connor Mickiewicz narrates as Nick Carraway (Oliver-Paul Adams dances the part) and croons with a silky resonance that perfectly fits the period. Blues singer E. Faye Butler provides her own sassy, pebble-throated vocals as well as some comic relief, care of her scene-stealing turn opposite dancer Alex Stewart in "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl."
Storytelling is Cunningham's and his company's strong suit, so it comes as no surprise that the tale is clearly told. Though the synopsis in the program proved helpful (college was a while ago, after all), the plot is reconstructed with such clarity that it's almost unnecessary.
Stefan Calka portrays the brooding millionaire Jay Gatsby; Isha Lloyd takes on the part of friend Jordan Baker; Christopher Nachtrab always the consummate, magnetic showman to watch plays Tom Buchanan, husband to the unrequited object of Gatsby's affection, Daisy (performed to perfection by Alexandra Cunningham). Amanda Peet dances the role of Tom's "side dish," Myrtle Wilson, and Michael Separovich is Myrtle's brutish husband.
Each dancer performs with his or her characteristic beauty and breathtaking talents, but Alexandra Cunningham was born to play Daisy Buchanan. She oozes affected, languid sensuality from every fiber of her being, right down to her expressive fingers.
In a piece adapted from a beloved book, it would be easy to be too heavy on plot or too short on atmosphere. But take it from an English major who also adores ballet: Get to "The Great Gatsby" before it closes Sunday, or you'll be just like the titular character forever pining for what might have been.
THE GREAT GATSBY
What:The Sacramento Ballet and Ron Cunningham's world premiere ballet of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel with live period music from Billy Novick's Blue Syncopators. "Gatsby" is preceded on the playbill by George Balanchine's "Who Cares?"
When: 7:30 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
Tickets: $17-$70 at www.tickets.com, at the Community Center Box Office or call the box office, (916) 808-5181