Adapted for the stage by: Robert Stigwood
Director: Bill Kenwright
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
A year after the touring version of Grease arrived at the Playhouse, Saturday Night Fever is now at the venue. It’s impossible not to see it as Grease’s less successful cousin. The first of the two movies that made John Travolta a household name, but the last to be turned into a musical. The reason for that may be that it’s a darker movie, which makes for a darker musical, which isn’t the stuff that feelgood jukebox musicals are made of.
It opens with a musical number before switching to the Brooklyn shop where Tony Manero, played by Richard Winsor, is barely earning enough to pay for a shirt to wear at 2001, his favourite nightclub, let alone make a living. It then takes us into the Manero home where his father Frank Senior has gone a long time without a job, and his worn-down mother Flo is worrying why she hasn’t heard from Tony’s brother Frank Junior, who has gone into the Priesthood and should be providing the family with some extra credit with God.
The dancefloor is Tony’s escape and could be his longer-term route out of the wider working-class Italian-American community he lives in. The dance contest taking place at 2001 could be the start of this. In a happy ever after world the path to winning would have a few obstacles, such as persuading Stephanie (Kate Parr), his ideal dance partner, to join him, but these would be overcome with no more than the minimum difficulty required to fill the space before the next song.
In Saturday Night Fever it is not as simple as this. There is Bobbie C, his best friend whose girlfriend is now pregnant and who’s Catholic upbringing means an abortion is out of the question. There is Frank Junior’s disillusion with the Church that leads to him going AWOL and there is Annette, the person who loves Tony and finds it hard to cope with not being his first choice dance partner. And then there is Tony himself, he may not be his own worst enemy, but he also isn’t his own best friend.
The musical brings all of these elements into play and neatly links the story with the songs throughout the first act and much of the second. The set changes are also very effective, capturing the contrast between the daytime real world and the fantasy reality of the nightclubs with mirror balls and elaborate 70s light shows.
However, having set up so much, it then brings it all to a rushed conclusion. The story turns very bleak and the world of Manero and his friends becomes a very different place. It should take a long while to get things back to something resembling normality, but instead, all it takes is a song.
It’s a good song, as are all of the songs in the musical, and the decision to have a Bee Gees band sing most of them, rather than have it as a traditional musical with cast members bursting into song, is a good one, adding credibility the story while still giving the audience the songs they want, but it does highlight the difficulty of trying to bring this story to the stage. As does the fact that the biggest cheer of the evening comes when Manero strips to his pants.
Saturday Night Fever has to walk a difficult line between trying to remain faithful to the storyline of the movie and giving the audience the singalong hits they have come to see without any real downers to ruin the atmosphere. It doesn’t always succeed, but on the whole it manages to do it thanks to a strong ensemble cast and a great soundtrack strategically placed at the right points throughout the show.
Runs until 27 October 2018 then touring | Image: Pamela Raith