Laugh if you must, but I liked The Bee Gees. I know, I know – those pretty boy brothers with the Pepsodent smiles sang like girls. And where would they have been without Barry’s hair? Still, what they had came at the right time, and those great, classic sounds of the mid to late ‘60s and early ‘70s had to give way to something. Who knew it would be disco?
With roots in a New York Magazine article, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn, the 1977 mega-hit “Saturday Night Fever” was born. So completely did John Travolta embody Tony Manero, that forty years after his introduction it’s hard to imagine any other interpretation for the talented, recognition starved young Brooklyn strutter with the dead end job and the dead beat friends.
The audience that was willing to forgive SNF’s darkness is not entirely the target audience for this musical version which went into development some twenty years after the movie and underwent multiple revisions. Playing at Riverside now is Robert Stigwood’s and Bill Oakes’ adaptation which acknowledges the harshness of life on “the other side of the bridge”, but focuses more on the theme of dance as an outlet for creative and emotional passions.
Under the direction and choreography of Patty D’Beck, Michael Notardonato’s Tony is as good as it gets. His job is not to imitate John Travolta (though the likeness is notable), but to unleash the pent-up fire of a young man who is increasingly alienated from his parents (Alan Hoffman and Kathy Halenda), frustrated with the sense of ‘goin’ nowhere’, is tired of girlfriend Annette (Taylor Short), and expresses it all on the dancefloor.
He meets his match in sultry Stephanie Mangano, (Melissa Rapelje) who represents herself as a Manhattan insider and shares his dance passion and talent, but not his high opinion of himself. Performing “100 Reasons” together illustrates the incipient nature of the relationship and shows off a pair of sugar and cream voices.
A spirited ensemble lives up to the requirements of “Stayin’ Alive” and Tony’s buddies perform a respectable “Jive Talkin’”. Leading the sub-plot is Bobby C. played by Gavin Rohrer who recently rocked this house as Jerry Lee Lewis. His conflict with girlfriend Pauline (Alyssa Bornschein) adds depth to the endless problem of gals who want commitment and boys who just wanna have fun. It also gives Bobby a stunning solo with “How Deep is Your Love”.
Some performers you just can’t take your eyes off. Serious kudos to Kadejah One, seen on this stage in “Dream Girls”, now as Candy wrapping her million dollar voice around “Nights on Broadway.” Most of the dancers are nimble and sharp, but Anthony Cosby as Pete gives new meaning to “flexibility.” This lithe, eel-like hoofer owns the scene with his struggling dance partner, Doreen, (Sarah Frances Williams) and mesmerizes during the competition.
Thanks to costume designer Angela Carstensen for not making visual jokes about 1970s dress. Costuming is well within the range of expectation for the era.
Adam Koch’s scenic design complemented by Joe Thompson’s lights is serviceable in primary colors and sharp angles. Quick set up area staging ranges from a Brooklyn street to the dance studio, the Manero house to Verrazano Bridge. Realistically painted backdrops and the occasional skylight – not to mention the requisite mirror disco ball at the 2001 Odyssey – add dimension and depth.
Live orchestration has been one of the great improvements at Riverside over the last few years, and the seven-piece musical ensemble that accompanies this show adds professional gloss. My only complaint is one I’ve registered before: sound balances are occasionally off, making lyrics difficult to hear. In the rapid fire “Stayin’ Alive”, it’s almost impossible.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Saturday Night Fever the Musical”
Where: Riverside Center for the Performing Arts
95 Riverside Pkwy.
Call: (540) 370-4300 or visit riversidedt.com
Playing through May 7