It’s astonishing to think that Saturday Night Fever is over 40 years old. Bee Gee’s manager and producer Robert Stigwood’s gritty, 1977 movie, based on British journalist Nik Cohn’s 1976 New York magazine article ‘Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night’ (later revealed to be pure fiction) has stayed in the public consciousness since then. It has even been declared “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry.
First appearing as a stage musical in the West End in 1998, it has undergone a myriad of incarnations since then, some less successful than others. This time it’s the turn of Bill Kenwright to tackle this seminal tale of the disco subculture.
Living at home with his parents and little sister, 19 year-old Bay Ridge boy Tony Manero (Robert Winsor), spends his days working in the local paint store and his nights escaping to the 2001 Odyssey disco. Eager to dig himself out of his dull life, he sets his sights on the $1000 prize in the local dance competition. Conflict arises with his friends and his potential dance partners: local girl Annette and the comparatively sophisticated Stephanie. Thrown into the plot are rape, abortion and suicide.
Unlike other productions, The Bee Gees (played by Ed Handoll, Alastair Hill & Matt Faull) appear onstage to provide musical accompaniment to the action, and do so phenomenally well, their vocals almost indistinguishable from the real thing. They are accompanied by a fine-sounding band, who are musically on-point throughout. Only a few of the characters in this ‘musical’ sing the songs that drive their character’s narrative: Tragedy by Bobby C (Raphael Pace) and If I Can’t Have You by the spurned Annette (Anna Campkin), and when they do it seems utterly incongruous. It feels as if it should be an ‘either/or’ choice, either a play with an accompanying soundtrack or a full blown musical. The soundtrack as it is delivered by the onstage band and vocalists is strong enough to eschew any need for the characters to burst into song.
The multi-level set is cleverly conceived and smoothly transitions from family home to paint store to local diner, to dance studio to the cacophony of colour at 2001 Odyssey, it is evocative and suitably evocative of the era. It beats the catastrophic 2014 actor/musician version that played out on an awful multicoloured cube strewn set, hands-down.
The cast work hard with the material they have, each is clearly giving their all. Richard Winsor as Tony has the most fully-formed character, with a beginning, development and end. Winsor’s acting is undoubtedly solid, as is his dancing. I can testify to Winsor’s dancing credentials, having seen him performing as part of Matthew Bourne’s company, and he is clearly a gifted ballet dancer, however, he looks uncomfortable with this loose disco style. He looks as if he is fighting between his classical training and the freedom of these moves. Less well rounded are those without fully developed and resolved stories: the spurned and sexually assaulted Annette and the tragic Bobby C, to name two, their story lines are introduced, then left to hang in the air with no satisfactory conclusion.
Bill Deamer’s choreography is lively, but as someone who has seen the original West End production, he has borrowed liberally from Arlene Phillips very memorable original choreography.
The writing is the production’s weakest link, with better material, this hard-working cast could have done so much more. Entertaining escapism, but there’s a lot of unfulfilled potential here.
Runs until Saturday 20 October 2018 at Glasgow King’s Theatre.
Images: Pamela Raith