F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald have survived in the public mind as symbolic Jazz Age swingers, even as Scott's place in the literary pantheon is the subject of debate — The Great Gatsby is still on many schools' required-reading lists, but his other novels and short stories are regarded mostly as historical curiosities. But the Fitzgeralds' personal legacy lives on, explored in many books, movies and TV shows — even a musical or two. Nancy Milford's respected 1970 biography Zelda played a big part in revising the couple's public image, making a case for Zelda's contributions as an artist in her own right.
Produced with a combination of pro actors and Belmont University students, Bill Feehely's new 90-minute one-act Outside Paradise successfully exploits the popular Fitzgerald image and offers thoughtful insight into the dysfunctional dynamics, mostly alcohol-related, between Scott and Zelda.
At curtain's rise, the moribund novelist is on his last legs in Los Angeles, where he receives a visitation from his Gatsby alter ego, Nick Carraway, who comes to serve as the play's narrator of sorts, as well as Scott's confidant and conscience.
Clay Steakley, a 1998 Belmont grad who's moved on to an L.A.-based acting career, is a good choice to portray Scott. Initially, he generates some sympathy for his character, especially as a young and talented writer striving to find his voice and place in society. Then enters the Alabama spitfire Zelda Sayre, portrayed with flair by Jennifer Richmond, and Scott's life is forever changed.
Feehely's script exhibits thorough factual research, while its heart pursues the forces that tragically drove his protagonists apart — mistrust, jealousy (both personal and professional), fundamental emotional problems and the foggy mist of booze.
Feehely also directs, and he gets strong performances from his principals. Ricardo Puerta and Luke Hatmaker further contribute nuanced support in roles key to the Fitzgerald sphere, such as editor Maxwell Perkins and Ernest Hemingway.
The student actors offer youthful energy and some enjoyable flapper dancing (choreographed by Alyssa Maddox). Ashley Glore is the standout among them, mostly via her cameo as Sheila Graham, the Hollywood gossip columnist who was Scott's close companion in his final days. D.J. Clark enacts the role of Carraway.
Bekah Reimer's set design hints at art deco and offers a stylish central playing area framed by matching staircases, helping to elicit the glittery Fitzgerald heyday while lending itself to brief moments of aerial choreography. The soundtrack features pop tunes from the era, including "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries."
A worthy complement to the existing documentation of the Fitzgeralds' lives, Outside Paradise also appears to be a rarity: a non-musical stage work on the subject.
Rhubarb Theater's remounting of Joe Pintauro's Birds in Church runs the risk of comparisons to the company's 2004 version of this collection of 14 short dramas. But while much of the material is the same — emotional and/or gritty scenes involving individuals on the margins — director Trish Crist has also interpolated five previously unseen pieces derived from the Pintauro canon.
In addition, the cast is all new, with the exception of Kellye Mitchell and Clay Hillwig. Performances are hit and miss, with Mitchell, Joy Tilley Perryman, Kate Adams and Phil Brady making notable contributions. Pintauro's characters range from priests to sex workers, and his usually engaging playlets sit well in this arrangement. (The final piece, "House Made of Air," in which Matilde Neruda reminisces about her late husband, assassinated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, is interesting but seems thematically out of place.)
The many scene changes are executed by six dancers who incorporate stylized moves into their regimen, occasionally breaking out into full-blown performance, all to the strikingly rhythmic music of experimental folk-rock band HuDost. The dance element proves entertaining, though it also helps expand the show's running time to three hours. It continues through Nov. 17 at Darkhorse Theater.
Street Theatre Company's ongoing series of musicals performed in concert continues with Miss Saigon, presented through Nov. 18 at the company's venue at 1933 Elm Hill Pike. The Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schönberg/Richard Maltby Jr. work revisits the Madame Butterfly story, updated to the Vietnam War era. The emotional pop-inflected score features a choir of singers backing up lead actors Larissa Maestro, Danny Tran, Kenny Eiland, Michael Holder and Joshua Waldrep. The live orchestra is conducted by Rollie Mains. Tickets are available online at streettheatrecompany.org.