When it comes to theater, nostalgia is a hit-or-miss proposition. It’s a great way to get people into seats, but once they are there, your challenge is in some ways twice as daunting. Not only do you have to work to put on a great production in its own right, but you also have to compete with the good memories and happy feelings that your audience might have with the source material. Alternately, if for whatever reason your audience has negative views of the original, you are already starting from behind.
This challenge was tackled by Theatre by the Sea, as they deliver Saturday Night Fever, the recent Broadway adaptation of the movie of the same name.
For those who are not already familiar, Saturday Night Fever tells the story of Tony Manero (Schyler Conaway), a Brooklyn nobody who spends his days in a dead-end job, his nights hanging out with his loser friends, and his weekends as the king of the dance floor at a local disco. When a dance competition with a substantial cash prize is announced, he sees it as his big chance, and dives headfirst into preparations. He convinces the talented but aloof Stephanie Mangano (Melissa Rapelje) to be his partner, and as their routine blossoms, so too does their relationship. By the time the big day arrives, Tony has to come to grips with love, heartache, death, the world and his place in it.
As you can imagine, your feelings toward this movie in particular, or disco music in general, will go a long way in determining how much you might enjoy this production.
By way of further explanation, let me own up to my own bias.
I didn’t know this before attending this production, but it turns out, I am NOT a fan of disco music. I find the songs irritating, the dances repetitive and the time period the exact opposite of something to glorify.
As a result, I did not like the PLAY Saturday Night Fever AT ALL. The plot is meandering with extremely low stakes, the characters (except for the two leads) are not given any time to distinguish themselves from one another and the attempts to turn the lyrics from these famous disco songs into actual showtunes was only half successful at best.
So, given my negative views toward the source materials, this show was clearly not for me. But (and this is a BIG “but”), if you do enjoy the movie or this music, you might have a great time, because this PRODUCTION of Saturday Night Fever is truly great.
From the performances to the technical details, Theatre by the Sea did just about everything right in mounting this show. Let’s start with the cast.
Schyler Conaway absolutely nails the swagger and pathos of Tony (and the women in the row in front of me were pretty big fans of the scene where he gets dressed!), while Melissa Rapelje does great work showing the vulnerability behind Stephanie’s street tough exterior. But while I didn’t walk out of the show remembering the supporting characters’ names or plotlines very well (see about my bias, above), there were moments where each of them took full advantage of their opportunity to shine. Two especially noteworthy examples are Ebony Deloney’s rendition of “Disco Inferno,” and Collier Cobb absolutely bringing down the house with “If I Can’t Have You.”
When it came to the dancing, choreographer Charlie Sutton put together an absolutely stunning body of work. And while this does include plenty of disco, there were also a lot of other terrific pieces in the show, including extremely up-tempo chorus numbers, and slower, more interpretive movements (I was particularly impressed with a small, often-repeated combination that was used to dramatize the boys and girls pairing up at the end of the night). As for the dancers themselves, I would go so far as to say that, as a unit, the ensemble was perhaps the highlight of the entire show, giving everything they had in their high-energy and challenging routines.
On the technical side, Kyle Dixon’s scenic designs were absolutely fantastic. A stage adaptation of a movie is especially daunting from a backdrop perspective, since a movie can simply move to different locations, while a play is limited to what you can do in a single confined space. But Dixon made use of all the tools at his disposal, using elaborate set pieces as readily as he used pictures on a flat backdrop to help set the mood and feel of each scene.
Finally, great credit needs to be given to director Richard Sabellico’s efforts in mounting this production. It is no small feat moving so many performers on and off the stage from scene to scene in a way that feels natural. Everything about Sabellico’s production felt smooth, from the casual interplay between Tony and his friends, to the way the ensemble stepped in and out of the spotlight as needed, all the way down to how everyone worked together to strike sets and props for seamless scene transitions.
So, if you’re a fan of the ‘70s, disco, John Travolta or Saturday Night Fever, you probably will not find a better-staged production of the play to see than this one. Just check your bias at the door.
Theatre by the Sea presents Saturday Night Fever through September 8. 364 Card’s Pond Road, Wakefield. Call 401-782-TKTS or visit theatrebythesea.com for tickets