Song & Stage

Literature Live! Brings ‘The Great Gatsby’ to Bay Street Theater

Director Joe Minutillo discusses his theatrical adaption of the American classic.

Bay Street Theater’s 2018 Mainstage season may have come and gone, but there’s another intensely thought-provoking show on the way. Rewind to 1920s Long Island. The educational theater program Literature Live! premieres its 10th Bay Street production, The Great Gatsby, on Thursday, November 8.

Directed by Joe Minutillo, his sixth Literature Live! theatrical adaptation peels away the layers of the American Dream, a concept at the forefront of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, and reveals the lust, greed and deceit that drive many to achieve it. “When you really analyze [The Great Gatsby], it’s about a man who’s gone from rags to riches. But how did he get there? He did it through bootlegging and doing illegal activity. He’s a conman,” Minutillo says. Adding that in order to attain the happiness that wealth didn’t bring him, Jay Gatsby slyly fights to steal Daisy away from her husband Tom Buchanan, ignoring the effect that breaking up their marriage would have on their young daughter. “There’s a sense of selfishness there,” he notes.

To be fair to Gatsby, selfishness and indulgence were in fashion during the Roaring Twenties, a time of social revolution, antiestablishment views and an increased divide between the classes. “[The Literature Live! production] is definitely hitting at the right time, where people wonder about the rich getting richer and the poor staying poor,” Minutillo notes, adding that “there’s still a sense of separation of classes” on Long Island.

The somber, reflective themes are juxtaposed in the Literature Live! adaptation by fun dance numbers, choreographed by Stephanie Vertichio, and original Jazz music, composed by Michael Holland. “The way the script was written, it almost has to be directed as a musical,” Minutillo points out.

One of the biggest directorial challenges to this approach is the number of scene changes, in which countless onstage furnishings are rushed across the thrust stage, each choreographed and accompanied by specific music or sounds. Thankfully, with the $5,000 raised by Pierson High School students in the International Baccalaureate program, Minutillo has been able to make this production as grandiose as he imagined. The all-star main cast of The Great Gatsby includes the scene-stealer of Guild Hall’s Romeo & Juliet, Charlie Westfal as Gatsby, John Kroft as Nick, Sara Carolynn Kennedy as Daisy, Alexandra Kopko as Jordan, Dan Fenaughty as Tom.

Minutillo has devoted his life to educational theater. He was a founding member of the New York State Theatre Education Association, which fought for required theater certification in the New York education system from its inception in 1983 to the eventual adoption of the rule in 2003.

The director recently retired from a 30-year stint as a teacher in the Eastport-South Manor Central School District, where he helped shape many young minds and gave students the confidence to use their voices through playwriting, acting and other aspects of play production. “The part I find most rewarding is the process. It’s pulling it all together and watching the process happen and the growth of the actors as they learn and investigate the characters” he notes. Under his tutelage, some students not only grew, but completely changed their life’s trajectory. He remembers one young man admitting to him, “If it wasn’t for you, I’d probably be in jail or be dead, one or the other. Theater totally changed where I was going.” This wasn’t a rare occurrence.

Theater is an enriching experience for audience members as well, offering significant advantages over film. “Seeing something onstage, three-dimensionally like that, there’s something that’s engaging that a screen just doesn’t provide,” Minutillo says. “In a screen version, yes, you’ll understand the storyline and all of that, but there’s something special about going to the theater and seeing this Gatsby character or Jordan or Tom standing right in front of you and having it come to life.”

Public performances of The Great Gatsby take place on November 8–10, 15–17 and 23–25. Tickets can be purchased online at baystreet.org or by calling 631-725-9500. Free weekday school group performances can be booked by emailing mary@baystreet.org.

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