Review: Saturday Night Fever

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The year is 1976. Robert Stigwood, Australian pop impresario, and his young protégé, John Travolta, are waiting for production to begin on Grease. When Stigwood reads an article by British music journalist Nik Cohn about the burgeoning New York disco scene entitled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” he spots an opportunity.

He moves fast, signing the rights to the article, casting Travolta as leading man Tony Manero and giving The Bee Gees (whom he had managed for many years) the chance to reinvent themselves as disco icons. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1998, twenty years after the release of the now classic movie, Saturday Night Fever was reworked into a musical, telling the same story and using the same soundtrack. It was an instant hit on Broadway and the West End. And now, another twenty years on again, the power and popularity of this boogie wonderland shows no sign of abating.

This slick production, showing at the Marlowe until 9th February, is directed by theatre heavyweight Bill Kenwright (more familiar to some of you as the chairman and dedicated fan of Everton F.C.) and choreographed by Bill Deamer.

Music and dance take centre stage, of course, but Kenwright does not shy away from some of the deeper political themes that enabled Travolta to earn an Oscar nomination for his original performance.

Here, the clever set design allows the story to move swiftly between Manero’s home, the hardware store where he works and of course, the 2001 nightclub where the magic happens.

Anyone familiar with the cover of the Saturday Night Fever album will also spot a nice visual reference in the Marlowe staging; in both cases the Bee Gees loom angel-like above the dance-floor. Here the “Bee Gees” consist of the excellent Edward Handoll, Alistair Hill and Matt Faull who match not only the voices of the original trio but the hairdos too. Moreover, they are supported by an excellent live band.

The spark that drives the plot forward is the news that dance contest is to be held at the 2001. Bored by his work and frustrated by his dysfunctional parents, Manero sees an opportunity to change his life. But the path to dancefloor glory is far from smooth.

Richard Winsor brings an amiable charm to the part of Manero as he navigates adoring women, friends in crisis and an abusive father. There are some genuinely touching moments throughout the play, especially in the interaction between Manero and his brother, recently home having left the priesthood.

I found myself a little distracted by the “Noo Yoik” accents that occasionally seemed a little forced but this is a minor quibble.

After all, this production should not to be judged on the quality of its dialogue. It is the dancefloor where the real magic happens. Here, Winsor’s charm gives way to something much more animal – his hips do the talking and they can certainly talk. Kate Parr’s Stephanie Managano, Manero’s dance partner for the competition, is wonderfully lithe and complements Winsor perfectly.

The two leads are supported by a large ensemble cast who are able to create the sense of a buzzing disco. A special mention should also go to Faizal Jaye who plays the charismatic DJ Monty, master of ceremonies at the 2001 and all-round disco king.

This is a fantastic production that has a message that resonates today just as strongly as it did in ’77; “You should be dancing!”.

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