‘Saturday Night Fever’ at the Fox packs more nostalgia than zing – The Mercury Newsadmin
Sometimes it seems as if an actor is destined to play a certain role, and that’s definitely the case in Broadway by the Bay’s current production of “Saturday Night Fever” at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City through Aug. 26.
It’s not just that Nick Bernardi looks the part, but he has the mannerisms like slicking back his hair down pat, handles the Brooklyn strut like a pro and demonstrates all the swagger of the original Tony Manero (John Travolta). It’s like he is him.
Granted, not all in the opening weekend audience had even seen the 1977 movie, which was a blockbuster hit and made songs like “Stayin’ Alive,” “More than a Woman,” “Boogie Shoes,” and “Jive Talkin’ ” long-established musical favorites. For them, Broadway by the Bay’s rendition may seem a tad archaic and, as one 20ish male was overheard saying at intermission, with “…songs from my dad’s generation.”
Actually, that’s true, so other than the aforementioned Nick Bernardi and several excellent actors, there aren’t a lot of other good reasons besides nostalgia to see this version.
A 10-piece band led by Musical Director Alicia Jeffrey makes sure the score is lively and toe-tapping, with some great drumming solos, and Nicole Helfer’s choreography is frequently inspiring (though it occasionally looks a little too “stagy”).
And although director Joshua Marx does his mightiest to keep things moving, there are just so many scene changes to contend with. Yet it’s likely the primary reason that this “Fever” doesn’t really zing is because it’s just not all that well written a play.
The musical’s roots are a mixture of the film and a 1975 magazine story by Nik Cohn. It was adapted for the stage by Robert Stigwood in collaboration with Bill Oaks. (The program includes the information that this is the North American version written by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti.)
If the whole thing were made up of Bee Gee songs, disco balls and jive dancing, well then, maybe it would have a better chance. But the plot itself is 1) lame; 2) dreary; 3) too obvious; and 4) all of the above. Young people may see vestiges of “West Side Story” in it (albeit with no Puerto Rican gangs), but otherwise it’s likely they have seen plenty by intermission time.
By contrast, the “oldies” in the audience whoop and holler, especially through most of the first act, and then they applaud passionately at “Fever’s” disco-dancing end.
For some reason, there often is a rush to take a lovable classic film and make it into a mediocre musical play. Films and plays are two different art forms, and sometimes they just don’t translate all that well from one to the other. (In this case, perhaps there were too many cooks in the kitchen.)
Yet the storylines are much the same: Nineteen-year-old Tony is known as the best dancer and “owns” the floor at the local “Club 2001 Odyssey” disco. As he sits and looks out over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, he feels the pull to get out of the old neighborhood, find a better job and “make something of myself,” he tells his brother Frank Jr. (a grounded performance by Zaya Kolia). But to the disappointment of his parents, Frank Jr., a Jesuit priest, is leaving the church because, he tells Tony, he never realized a priest’s life would be so lonely.
Tony’s gang of four are all pretty interchangeable, save for the tall, fluid David Blackburn who, as Bobby, is torn between marrying his now-pregnant girlfriend (Brigitte Losey) and staying with his gang. That problem is solved by play’s end, though not in a good way for Bobby.
Losey, as well as Tony’s two love interests, the mercurial Sammi Hildebrandt as unstable Annette and cute-as-a-button Anya Absten as ambitious Stephanie, all have strong voices, so their solos and duets are some of the best songs in the show.
Joe Hudelson creates the zaniest character in “Fever” as Monty, the gold Afro-wearing, chatty D.J., but he gets a run for his money from Neal Pascua as a frizzy-haired Richard Simmons-type fitness guru. Both of them mug and exaggerate most of their moments, but do bring some levity to the show.
The large ensemble cast, wearing wondrously colorful disco-era costumes (thanks to costume designer Tammy Berlin), brings some life to most of the big production numbers. A large dollop of credit goes to Aaron Spivey’s lighting because, well, what’s a disco without lollapalooza lighting?
Scenic designer Kelly James Tigne knew that that bridge – so symbolic of life in 1977 Brooklyn – needed to be impressive. That it is, and the rest of the settings are serviceable, if not memorable.
Zak Stamps’ sound can sometimes be spotty in the cavernous Fox Theater, but it appears to get better as the play goes on. And sound for the musical numbers is big and boisterous.
Broadway by the Bay deserves a lot of credit for staging a show that isn’t presented very often in this area. In fact, since its one-year Broadway run in 1999, it hasn’t been a community theater favorite despite its era-defining songs.
But Bernardi’s cocky Tony, he of the iconic three-piece white suit standing with his hip cocked and one arm raised up (the infamous Travolta stance), is close to the price of admission alone. And those disco-era songs help many in the audience rekindle — or get to know — a long-ago slice of Americana.
Email Joanne Engelhardt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: “Saturday Night Fever”
Produced by: Broadway by the Bay
Where: Fox Theatre, Redwood City
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays
Through: Aug. 26
Tickets: $44-66; 650-650-5565, www.broadwaybythebay.org