A Tad Feverish Saturday Night
On paper, it would seem that turning the 1977 John Badham film Saturday Night Fever into a musical would be a no-brainer, given that the film is rife with disco numbers by the Bee Gees and a whole lot of dancing. Unfortunately, what can be done on film sometimes simply has problems translating well to the stage, and such is the case with the musical version of the film that recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse, a tuneful, often energetic piece of theater that, unfortunately, often seems to drag itself across the stage.
One of the basic problems is that while editing films you can effortlessly cut from one scene to another — at one moment you’re on a bridge and the next you’re in a subway car, no problem — such is not the case with live theater. Scene changes often take time, a lot of time when the scene requires a totally different “look” (hence the scene-in-one, where actors perform in front of the closed curtain while the set is being changed). This is one of the downfalls of this musical, for there are a plethora of scene changes, with some scenes, as my play-going partner commented, not lasting as long as it takes for the stagehands to re-set the stage (you might call them scene-lets). Thus, the emotional drive (and sometimes the coherence) of the musical is often stymied as the audience waits in the dark for the next scene to be established.
This stagger-step approach to staging is perhaps caused because the musical’s book has many fathers (or cooks, if you will): The film was adapted for the stage by Robert Stigwood collaborating with Bill Oakes, but the North American version is credited to Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti. Hence, this is a book created by committee, and we all know what committee’s create.
The basic set, designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, focuses on the disco that the lead, Tony Manero (Michael Notardonato) frequents on weekends. It’s realized fairly well, with balconies stage left and right and something of a catwalk upstage, behind which is a visual of the iconic Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The balcony stage left also serves as Tony’s bedroom. All well and good, but then Marchitto has to provide a kitchen in the Maneros’ house, a paint store, a hospital room (probably the most unnecessary piece of staging), a bench in a park and, most ponderous of all, ascending cables that support the Verrazano bridge. I didn’t have a stopwatch, but the time required to set and re-set the stage probably ran close to 10 minutes in sum. That’s a lot of dead time.
When plays are made into films it requires a certain opening up (often to an extreme – think Phantom of the Opera), but when films are turned into theater pieces they need to be tightened, trusting that the audience will be able to fill in the blanks. Saturday Night Fever needs a whole heck of a lot of tightening.
That being the case, for those not familiar with the film, we have the aforementioned Tony who lives an aimless existence in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. During the week he’s a drudge at a paint store and constantly being put down by his parents, but on weekends he’s king of the dance floor at 2001 Odyssey. He wants to break out but doesn’t know how. Then, a dance contest is to be held at Odyssy, with a $1,000 prize. Could this be his ticket? His erstwhile girlfriend, Annette (a lithe and vivacious Nora Fox) wishes to be his partner, but Tony catches sight of the alluring Stephanie (Caroline Lellouche), a Manhattan secretary who dreams of bigger things (read Working Girl). So Tony ditches Annette and pursues Stephanie, eventually winning the contest with her (followed by a noble action on Tony’s part that proves his heart is in the right place).
Several sub-plots serve often to muddy the waters a bit (only because most of them are not fully realized). We have one of Tony’s friends, Booby C. (Pierre Marais), getting good-Catholic-girl Pauline (Sarah Mae Banning) preggers (he will pay for that mortal sin in true cinematic fashion); we have another friend, Gus (Colin Lee), attacked by a gang, for which Tony’s group takes misguided (perhaps) revenge; we have Tony’s older brother, Frank Jr. (Alec Bandzes), opting to leave the priesthood – it’s never exactly made clear why – perhaps just another crisis of conscience.
There’s not much Todd Underwood, director and choreographer, can do with this somewhat disjointed material but move it along as best he can, waiting patiently for the sets to be changed. However, such is not the case with the musical numbers which, fortunately, are numerous. There is, of course, a lot of disco dancing – flashy and dramatic, culminating in the dance contest — but there are also some moving set pieces, chief among them when Fox, as Annette, renders the lovely “If I Can’t Have You,” when she, along with Lellouche and Notardonato, do an engaging fantasy dance sequence, and the moving “What Kind of Fool,” tenderly rendered by Lellouche.
At upwards of two-and-a-half hours (with one intermission), Saturday Night Fever might easily seem like it has dragged on into a bleary-eyed Sunday morning. There’s a sharp, crisp, engaging musical hiding in all of this material that just requires a scalpel and a bit of creative thinking to bring it to life.
Saturday Night Fever runs through September 3. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.