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Wednesday September 17th 2014

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Traveling Back to the Twenties

By Jennifer Leigh

The clothes, the music, the stories — it’s no wonder that the years known as the Roaring ‘20s are revisited over and over again almost a 100 years later. In Pensacola, two upcoming events capture the culture of that decadent decade.

First is the Pensacola State College production of “The Great Gatsby,” based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even with the many movie adaptations, Director Rodney Whatley was more inspired by the book, deciding on award-winning playwright Simon Levy’s adaptation. Much of the play’s dialogue is lifted from the novel.

“I have friends who are Gatsby fanatics. When I first got the script, I let one of them read it, and she said it was a superior adaptation,” he said.

When it comes to the fascination of the ‘20s, Whatley said it’s the amount of fun that people had that keeps audiences coming back for more.

“It was a time of unbridled optimism,” he said. “They say that it is always darkest just before the light, but in this case, it was lightest just before the dark. The ‘20s was the party going on prior to the Great Depression, and the country burned so brightly. I think the reason people are attracted to the decade is because we all, boys as well as girls, just want to have fun.”

Interpreting such a beloved classic such as “The Great Gatsby,” can be intimidating, with so many opinions on how the production should be executed and perhaps most importantly, who should play Mr. Jay Gatsby.

“I was looking for the most handsome man in the room, but he also has to be a good actor,” Whatley said. “I actually had several candidates who showed up, so casting the show was not easy. However, Shane Howell won the day.”

Since Whatley took over as Director of Theatre in 2005, he’s had his fair share of bringing back classic tales to the PSC stage.

“I have a great team here and they do great work,” he explained. “Some of our best shows have been when we take a classic and put it through our interpretive engines.”

While staying true to the book, Whatley and his crew also stayed true to the soundtrack of the ‘20s.

“The music is a character in the show, and we don’t feel that updating the music will capture the spirit that Fitzgerald intended,” he said.

The Pensacola Symphony Orchestra is also revisiting this iconic decade and has dedicated a whole program to the decade, called The Roaring Twenties. The music that originated in the 1920s was groundbreaking—it’s not called the Jazz Age for nothing.

“The Roaring Twenties were a dynamic period of prosperity coming out of World War I,” said Bret Barrow, executive director of PSO as well as principal trombonist. “Jazz music in particular prospered. The Saenger Theatre was even built as a product of this prosperity in 1925.”

Music Director, Peter Rubardt, programmed four pieces for the concert. While elements of the Jazz Age can be found in other productions, Barrow said it is a unique treat to have a whole program focused on this time period.

The concert will feature “Octandre” by Varese, “Piano Concerto in F” by Gershwin, “The Miraculous Mandarin Suite,” by Bartok and “Bolero” by Ravel. Playing the piano is special guest Christopher O’Riley, who is not only an accomplished pianist, but also host of the National Public Radio show “From the Top.”

“All four composers shaped the music that followed them,” Barrow said. “Varese’s musical experiments lead later to the combination of electronic and acoustic instruments. Gershwin made his mark all over the musical world from orchestral to Broadway and film. Bartok and Ravel pushed the limits of orchestration and their techniques are studied to this day. It is fascinating that these composers lived in the same period and influenced each other. What a remarkable period of innovation.”

Perhaps the more recognized name among the composers is Gershwin. Barrow noted he first worked as a musician in the famous “Tin Pan Alley,” which refers to a specific spot in New York City where music publishers and songwriters in the 19th and early 20th century set up shop.

Just like jazz broadened the horizons of its listeners, PSO hopes to do the same by introducing these composers.

“It’s easy to expect Mozart and Beethoven to be how many people define an orchestra,” Barrow said. “Those composers are certainly dear to us and we do play them frequently. However, programs like these open eyes to other ways that orchestral music sounds. Familiarity is good, but so is experimentation.”

While you may be able to experience the music of the Roaring ‘20s by listening to your great-grandparent’s records, nothing beats a live performance.

“I love records and most recorded music, however, I think the difference you have at a live performance is all about the human experience,” Barrow said. “The energy of an audience feeds the musicians and heightens the experience. There is something inspiring about these remarkable achievements and an orchestra concert brings these elements together like no recording can. Live music never sounds the same twice.”

THE GREAT GATSBY
WHEN: Feb. 27- March 2
WHERE: PSC Ashmore Auditorium, 1000 College Blvd.
DETAILS: 484-1847 or pensacolastate.edu

PSO’S THE ROARING TWENTIES
WHEN: 8 p.m., Saturday March 1
WHERE: Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox
COST: $22 to $84
DETAILS: 595-3880 or pensacolasaenger.com