He's back. That's right, Tony Manero. The down-on-his-luck, street-wise kid from Brooklyn who hungers to escape his dead-end job and reign as the "disco king" at the local club.
Flash back to the late 1970s when shiny polyester shirts open to the waist, bell-bottom pants, platform shoes and the disco "four-on-the floor" beat were all the rage. Wrapping up its 2016-2017 season, Vero's Riverside Theatre serves up the soaring sounds and pulsating rhythms of Saturday Night Fever, running through April 30.
The musical is framed on Nik Cohn’s New York Magazine story, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which turned into the culture-bending blockbuster 1977 film, starring John Travolta. It follows the lives of a group of working-class Italian-Americans in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in 1976, who despaired at their jobs and lived for their local disco called 2001 Odyssey where they madly danced the night away.
First performed on stage in London in 1998, the musical ran for sixteen months and received three nominations for Laurence Olivier Awards. Directed and choreographed by Arlene Phillips, Saturday Night Fever opened at the Minskoff Theatre in New York City on October 21, 1999 and ran for 501 performances.
Under the direction and choreography of Riverside's Richard Stafford, the opening song “Staying Alive,” introduces us to Tony, strutting about with his Brooklyn peacock swagger. This one line from the tune sums up the moral lesson of the production: “Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me.”
The story is not that strong, so it's the music that holds the show together. It sparkled every time the “Brooklyn kids" took to the dance floor and is fueled by the vintage Bee Gee hits, "How Deep Is Your Love," "Staying Alive," "You Should Be Dancing," "Jive Talking" and "Night Fever." Musical director Ken Clifton (keyboards) provides a large, well-balanced sound to one of popular music’s most recognizable collection of hits.
Cohn’s tale of adolescent angst, romance and identity crisis tags along with Tony (Jacob Tischler) a clerk at a local paint store. His too-cool-for-school pals are a pack of sharp-dressing, wise-cracking guys with perfectly coiffed hair who proudly dub themselves The Faces.
The storyline touches on a wide swath of tribulations: family strife, racial injustice, gang fights, suicides, rape, and abortion-- way too much going on in a stage production. However, it cleverly delivers a memory album of events and names of 1970s New York City: references to serial killer Son of Sam, the New York City blackout (power outage), a searing heat wave, Jets quarterback “Broadway” Joe Namath, movie hero Rocky, Yankees hitter Lou Piniella, and the ubiquitous hamburger chain White Castle.
Romance enters the scene with former girlfriend Annette (Nico Colon) who claws at Tony to enter the upcoming dance contest, but he ditches her for new partner Stephanie (Alexandra Matteo). She shows up with a sassy attitude and a flaming Brooklyn accent, a girl affecting pretension and confidence while trying to rise above her tough neighborhood background.
There is a dizzying change of set designs as cast members set up chairs, tables, beds, and disco spaces, even while finishing or beginning their scenes. Bridges and buildings descend, gritty streetscapes magically appear, and the disco and dance studio come alive thanks to the talents of scenic designer Peter Barbieri. The disco scenes are aglow in great lighting schemes by Jack Mehler. The sound design by Trevor Peters and Craig Beyrooti adds a true-to-life ambience, with occasional street sounds filling the air.
Still, it all comes back to the music as the energetic cast sings and dances with professional precision. Most especially, the high energy, high kick dancing. The large ensemble dances wildly in “Boogie Shoes,” “Disco Inferno,” and “You Should Be Dancing” showcasing the brilliant choreography by Stafford. One standout performance is Matteo belting out “What Kind of Fool” as brilliantly as any pop star vocalist.
Costumes designed by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case are spot-on compliments to those 1970s cringe-worthy fashions. At the finals of the dance competition there is a special nod to the iconic threads worn by John Travolta in the movie version — Tony decked out in a white three-piece suit paired with a black shirt.
Forty years later, the groundbreaking soundtrack still feels and sounds as fresh as ever. Here's to one last evening of disco fever!
Saturday Night Fever performs through April 30. Tickets are $35. For more information call 772-231-6990 or visit http://www.riversidetheatre.com