Saturday Night Fever – The Alexandra, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Adaptors: Robert Stigwood with Bill Oakes

Director: Bill Kenwright

It’s hard to appreciate now the impact that the film Saturday Night Fever had on its release in 1977. It thrust a young John Travolta into the spotlight as Italian-American Tony Manero and gave the Bee Gees a new direction and lease of life as they provided its thumping disco soundtrack. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Tony Manero’s story was adapted as a stage musical in 1998. But it’s not a musical in the usual sense of the word, rather this is a play about late 1970s society, that uses the growing disco movement as a hook on which to hang its story. Nevertheless, there are a few stand-out moments as characters invite us to share their thoughts in song – for example, Annette’s number, If I Can’t Have You. Some of the film’s themes that led to its adults-only rating in 1977 have been toned down or omitted from the stage musical to allow for a wider audience – though the age recommendation is still 14 – but there is still plenty of casual misogyny (one character does have the temerity to suggest to an uncomprehending Tony that women could perhaps be treated as persons) and racism that will jar on the ears of the modern-day audience.

Tony Manero is from the wrong side of the tracks and doesn’t he know it. His parents are disappointed in him, especially in comparison with his brother, the priest. He’s good at his job in the paint store, but still feels he’s trapped. He and his bunch of friends only come truly alive at the weekends at the disco when they put on their Boogie Shoes and strut their stuff and show off their moves. And it’s these sequences to the falsetto tones of our own Bee Gees on a platform high above the stage that work best, sequences when Tony leads the cast in Bill Dermer’s period-style choreography, bringing a real sense of nostalgia to those of a certain age.

Then, an opportunity to escape. There’s to be a dance competition with a prize of $1000, so Tony sets about winning it. With a breathtaking lack of empathy, he casts aside Annette, who worships him from afar, in favour of the enigmatic Stephanie Mangano who agrees to dance with him but otherwise maintains her distance. The balletic sequences in which they dance together are quite beautiful. Meanwhile, Tony’s gang of buddies are just beginning to grow up, for example, as Bobby C tries to come to terms with his actions, but the macho culture actively prevents him from getting the help he cries out for.

The show’s cinematic roots are clear in the big set-piece dance sequences and the short, sharp scenes in between. Gary McCann’s multi-level set constructed of platforms and stairs lends itself to the space needed to dance as well as flying in scenery for the paint store or the Maneros’ home. However, the shortness of the spoken scenes has a detrimental effect on character development: for example, we’re told about Tony’s father’s treatment of his wife and family, but only see snippets, not enough to properly take on board the impact his actions had on the growing family.

Strutting centre stage is Jack Wilcox as Tony. With his fluid hips, he’s always the focus of attention whether dancing or not. Wilcox brings a lip-curling Elvis vibe to Manero, but the characterisation as a whole doesn’t quite work; he remains resolutely two-dimensional. Billie Hardy’s Annette is believable as the girl totally infatuated with Tony and her actions after what she sees as a betrayal are well portrayed. Rebekah Bryant’s Stephanie is full of mystery as she seems to spin Tony a line about her glamorous lifestyle in Manhattan, all the time keeping him firmly at arms’ length. But perhaps the most rounded characters are Bobby C (Harry Goodson-Bevan) with his descent well documented and Frank Jr, Tony’s brother (Marios Nicolaides) as he deals with a personal crisis.

The whole, especially the first act, feels a touch long: the balance between the spectacle of the dance sequences and the adulation Tony enjoys at the disco, and the life from which he wants to escape is perhaps a bit askew. Nevertheless, it’s a spectacular night out at the Disco Inferno and may well leave you with Night Fever, thinking You Should Be Dancing.

Runs Until 26 November 2022

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It's a Disco Inferno

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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