Adaptor: Robert Stigwood in collaboration with Bill Oakes, with songs by the Bee Gees
Featuring a young John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever was the film of late 1977. Facing the tough realities of early adulthood, Tony Manero is a disillusioned Italian-American youth that finds release from the tedious grind of his dead-end job, turbulent family life, and stagnant friendships through New York’s burgeoning subcultural disco scene. As its jukebox stage adaptation, Saturday Night Fever follows the film’s narrative almost step-for-step on a journey down memory lane for disco fanatics at the Peacock Theatre.
The show plays up to the nostalgic expectations of its audience, indulging in dance hit after dance hit popularised by the film’s original soundtrack. Over 40 years on from its original release, however, this narrative feels dated in important ways that are left unexplored. Themes of sexual assault, suicide, abortion, and domestic violence struggle to be reconciled with the feel-good jukebox sheen of Saturday Night Fever, leaving us longing for a grittier take with more substance.
Curiously, Saturday Night Fever doesn’t often feel like a musical at all; rather a sort of disco-ballet. For the most part, the characters themselves don’t sing — we are instead serenaded by a Greek Chorus of Bee Gees (Jake Byrom, James Hudson, and Oliver Thomson), fixed on a balcony upstage centre, who fade in and out with their diegetic disco tunes, including Stayin’ Alive, How Deep Is Your Love, Night Fever, and Tragedy. Dance abounds in Saturday Night Fever to the audience’s delight and Bill Deamer’s choreography shines through to stardom, particularly through the show’s more intimate duet and solo moments where the opportunity for storytelling is more readily capitalised upon.
Richard Winsor as Tony Manero takes to this form with ease, bringing his wealth of experience as principal dancer for Matthew Bourne to the discotheque’s dance floor. Winsor’s Tony oozes style in his movement, with this solid turn as the scrappy young protagonist faltering really only with regards to an inconsistent Brooklyn accent, and in that Winsor is by no means alone in this production. In love interest Stephanie Managano (Olivia Fines), Tony meets his match, and in turn finds hope of a way out of his stagnating life and dwindling opportunities. Fines’ portrayal is well-rounded, beguiling and complex as we slowly get a sense for the ambitious upstart behind the cool, detached façade that she presents to Tony, cautiously bringing down her guard and breaking Tony’s misogynistic refrain that all girls are either ‘good’ or ‘bitches’.
Based on Nik Cohn’s 1976 article ‘Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night’, the original film is a hard-hitting depiction of the realities and fantasies of ‘70s disco subculture. Saturday Night Fever, however, feels more like a nostalgic romanticisation of the film itself than a stage adaptation of its narrative. Unfortunately, this leaves the production ill-equipped to handle the show’s darker lines in the second act, leaving the audience emotionally blind-sided as what has been a feel-good nostalgia-fest depicts an on-stage suicide and rape within the span of a couple of minutes, followed by what becomes an borderline ghoulish wrap-up of the show’s romantic plot that leaves Tony’s own transgressions unaddressed. It’s a fumble that feels more like a shock-and-awe campaign in the context of 2022 and lacks commentary, care, and construction over the course of the show to be able to redeem such a moment. As the final minutes of Saturday Night Fever descend into a surreal crowd-pleasing Bee Gee megamix, it’s hard not to feel the whiplash of the show’s darker moments.
Runs until 26 March 2022