We gave it a B-
You’re probably going to hear a lot about how the new Broadway production of Saturday Night Fever is taking the heel of its solid-silver platform shoe and stomping another nail into the coffin of the Broadway musical. Don’t believe it. For one thing, there isn’t room for another nail in that particular coffin. For another, what’s killing the Broadway musical is simple: bad Broadway musicals.
Saturday Night Fever doesn’t even belong to the genre. It’s part of a newer, grubbier tradition: the enshrinement of a semi-beloved piece of entertainment in the form of a live stage show. I’m talking about Footloose and Beauty and the Beast. I’m talking about shows with the words capades or mania! in their titles. I’m talking about anything that looks like a Lucite snow-globe version of the original. This is Saturday Night Fever on Ice, at least metaphorically. It’s John Badham’s movie flash-frozen and thawed out after 22 years for our enjoyment.
Of course, no matter how pristinely you attempt to preserve something, two decades will scorch a few freezer burns onto it anyway. In 1977, while my 13-year-old buddies and I were busy sneaking into the R-rated Fever, Broadway audiences were making a hit out of the critically dismissed Grease. In this strictly PG-13 production, those two pop confections seem to have merged: What was once as coolly up-to-the-minute as white polyester has become the material of warm and fuzzy nostalgia.
Slicked up and dumbed down, Saturday Night Fever has lost its strut, its Brooklyn snap, its working-class sexual thrust. The surprising news is that on its own peculiar terms, it still works. For one thing, there’s the music. Yes, the Bee Gees music, which, instead of merely setting the mood, now flies directly out of the cast’s gratifyingly non-falsetto-prone larynxes.
Forget all those young-fogy rock ”purists” who decried the advent of disco in 1977. (With thinner hair and wider waistlines, they’ve grown into the middle-aged fogies who are whining about the revival of disco.) Fact is, these songs are great. ”Stayin’ Alive,” ”Night Fever,” ”How Deep Is Your Love” — must I go on? Okay: ”If I Can’t Have You,” ”More Than a Woman,” ”You Should Be Dancing.”
Come on — aren’t you smiling just a little? Putting these tunes in the mouths of Tony Manero, his blockhead buddies, and the queens of the 2001 Odyssey disco works surprisingly well — even when pre-SNF hits like ”Nights on Broadway” and later songs like ”Tragedy” and the Barbra Streisand/Barry Gibb duet ”What Kind of Fool” are interpolated.
And let’s not underestimate the plot. Saturday Night Fever has endured for two decades because its narrative is as supple as the 23-year-old John Travolta was. Like Rocky, like Boogie Nights, it’s the story of a working-class palooka who thinks he’s got only one special thing — his dancing — and his struggle to understand if being a man means using it or transcending it, remaining a boy or growing up, behaving as a lover, a lout, or a gentleman. Turn it into a musical and it’s still affecting, not to mention a lot sturdier than the plotline of, say, On the Town.
In director-choreographer Arlene Phillips’ Windex-shiny, smoke-and-mirror-balls production, the contrast between Tony’s stunted, squabbling home life and the gaudy glamour of the disco is lost — on the stage of the Minskoff, even the squalor is spankin’ fresh — but heartachy yearning still glows within. There’s no denying that the shadow over this production is a big one — especially since the cast, bedecked in big head microphones (another sign that this is more of a Disney World parade float than a musical) and authentically ugly period boogie-wear, has clearly been encouraged to ape every vocal and physical gesture of the film’s stars.
As a dancer, the otherwise winning James Carpinello lacks Travolta’s joy and sinuous grace; his anachronistically overdeveloped upper body doesn’t help, nor does some of the Solid Gold-ish choreography. Then again, he also lacks Travolta’s most sensually willing dance partner, the camera. But he’s got Travolta’s slurry, thick-tongued sincerity down pat, and despite rumors, his singing voice — at least at the preview performance I saw — was clear, pleasant, and unfailingly on key. Also fine: the frighteningly Donna Pescow-like Orfeh as Annette (”You a nice girl or a slut?” ”I dunno — both?”), and the mildly Barry Miller-like Paul Castree playing Bobby C (you know, the doofus who dies so Tony can become a better man).
Put it all together and you could do a lot worse. Masterpiece? Of course not. But every generation is entitled to its own Grease, and Saturday Night Fever fills the bill. You and your 12-year-old will be dancing in the aisles at the end, and that’s not hyperbole: At the curtain call, the cast orders you to.