Saturday Night Fever was the 1977 film that catapulted John Travolta to superstardom. To date, its grossed $237 million and its soundtrack (which includes a host of Bee Gees gems) has sold more than 45 million copies worldwide. In 1998, the original musical version had its world premiere in London in a production directed and choreographed by Arlene Phillips and starring Australia’s own Adam Garcia.
It’s a French adaptation of Saturday Night Fever that opened at the Sydney Lyric last week (directed locally by Karen Johnson Mortimer). It’s the story of 19-year-old Tony Manero (Euan Doidge), who lives with his parents (Denise Drysdale and Mark Mitchell, who make a filmed cameo appearance) in a working-class Brooklyn neighbourhood and has a job at a paint store. His life is going nowhere and Tony’s respite from a harsh reality comes from nights spent in 2001 Odyssey, a local disco, where he’s admired for his skills on the dance floor.
Tony is looking for a way out of Brooklyn. He’s set to enter a dance competition with Annette (Angelique Cassimatis), who longs for a more substantial relationship with him. But when Tony spots Stephanie Mangano (Melanie Hawkins) at the club, he’s bowled over by her exceptional dance ability and quickly ditches Annette, in order to partner her in the competition. Front and centre in Saturday Night Fever should be the notion of trying to escape an unhappy existence in pursuit of a better life.
But this is where the problems with Saturday Night Fever’s musical iteration begin. There’s no true foregrounding of that theme or any attempt to make more than cursory references to other weighty and socially relevant issues (including abortion, racism and sexism). It makes it difficult to become invested in the story when the challenges with which the characters grapple are so fleetingly canvassed.
The bulk of the singing is done by the Star Vocalists – Bobby Fox, Nana Matapule, Paulini Curuenavuli and Natalie Conway. They make light work of the disco hit-filled score (which includes ‘Stayin Alive’, ‘Night Fever’, ‘You should be dancing’ and ‘How deep is your love). Each rendition of these instantly recognisable songs is enjoyable (thanks also to great work by musical director David Skelton and his eight-piece band), but the fact that they’re largely performed around the actors (instead of by them) does create a problematic sense of distance between the story and the music. Musically, highlights of the piece come in the second act, when Marcia Hines joins proceedings. She enters the stage with a powerhouse performance of ‘You’ and her presence is immediately felt. It’s hard to compete in this arena with a genuine disco diva.
On the acting front, there’s no shortage of talent in this production. Doidge is convincing as the young Italian-American lothario in search of greener pastures, Hawkins is immensely likeable as his worldlier dance partner, and Cassimatis continues to demonstrate her wonderful skills in the role of the lustful and poorly-treated Annette. And as both store owner, Fosco, and Tony’s brother, Frank Jr, Stephen Mahy delivers a solid performance. But the actors can only do so much with the dialogue and storylines dealt them.
Unsurprisingly, where Saturday Night Fever’s real strength lies is in its dancing. Malik Le Nost’s intricate and exuberant choreography is terrific, particularly as it’s performed by a high calibre troupe (led by Doidge and Hawkins), whose athleticism and razor-sharp skills are impressive. Not even on the final note of the curtain call encore is there a hint of flagging energy.
If this was purely a dance showcase, Saturday Night Fever would be an unequivocal triumph. But this is a musical and because of its thin narrative and thinly-drawn characters, it’s a musical theatre experience that falls short on the whole.
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre, The Star
Season: Playing until June 2, 2019
Performance times: Wed-Thurs 7.30pm, Fri-Sat 8pm, Matinees Wed 1pm & Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm & 6pm*
Prices: From $59.90**
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 1300 795 267
Groups 12+ call 1300 889 278
* Performance times vary weekly
** Transaction fees apply