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Fever pitch

It may not have Travolta, but Broadway’s “Saturday Night Fever” does have ticket buyers dancing to the box office.

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You don’t know James Carpinello. But you’ve definitely met his suit. Carpinello, a studly 24-year-old from upstate New York, is stepping into tight white polyester, rearranging a few vowels in his name, and reviving the biggest phenomenon to blow out of Brooklyn since Barbra Streisand.

Tony Manero is dancing on Broadway.

More than two decades after Saturday Night Fever ignited a disco inferno that would ultimately gross $350 million worldwide, Saturday Night Fever — the musical! — is heating up the Great White Way. Now in previews and opening Oct. 21 at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre, the show — which originated in London last year — is a glossy $9 million opus with a cast of 41 well-coiffed disco-dancing fools. Carpinello takes on the role that John Travolta made famous; Paige Price stars as the ambitious secretary he pines for; the singularly named Orfeh (who bears a striking resemblance to Donna Pescow, who originated the role in the movie) appears as the story’s sympathetic bad girl. Besides two new Bee Gees tunes, the musical features the original soundtrack classics, such as ”Night Fever,” performed by the company during a mammoth disco scene, and ”Stayin’ Alive,” which Carpinello belts out as the show’s opening number.

While not everyone is whistling — Fever preview-performance audience reaction has ranged from nostalgic euphoria to slack-jawed horror — the show seems to be decidedly critic-proof. Long before a single review ever made its way into the media, $20 million in advance tickets had already been sold. ”I expected the numbers to be good,” says Ronald Lee, president of Group Sales Box Office. ”This is phenomenal. They’ve got solid sales through December, and deep purchases stretching into June.”

Not surprising, since the current success of Footloose and The Lion King on Broadway has already proven there’s gold in hummable Hollywood properties (there’s even a song-and-dance Batman in the works). ”These shows bring in people who don’t normally go to the theater,” says Footloose coproducer Michael David. ”They know the movie, so they perceive the play as something safe.” Manny Kladitis — associate producer of the Broadway rendition of Fever with original impresario Robert Stigwood — claims the show (directed by former Starlight Express choreographer Arlene Phillips) has already recouped its investment and promises Fever ”franchises” all over the world. Next up: Australia and New Zealand (a German version is already running). Meanwhile, cashing in on Fever fever, Bloomingdale’s is hawking fashion inspired by the play, including the obligatory white polyester suit ($815). Even the Today show celebrated Fever outfits on Oct. 7. ”We got Matt Lauer into the white suit,” says Bloomingdale’s vice president Kal Ruttenstein. ”Al Roker wanted one, but it didn’t come in his size.”

The show’s producers had some trouble filling that infamous white suit too. Carpinello — an unknown whose resume includes an L.A. version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Off Broadway play Stupid Kids — won the role after a nationwide talent search. Now all he has to do is follow the footsteps of the most charismatic dancing shoes in recent movie history. Carpinello, trying to stay calm a couple of weeks before opening night, contends that ”I’m playing a character that people love. My only pressure is doing it eight times a week.”

Fine. Just don’t break a leg.