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A CurtainUp Review
Saturday Night
By Michael Bracken

"I don't have any emotional reaction to Saturday Night at all — except fondness. It's not bad stuff for a 23-year-old."
— Stephen Sondheim at the time of Saturday Night's New York premiere.

Saturday Night
L-R: Jared Loftin, Matthew Scott, Greg Kamp, Lindsay Mendez, Jeremy Greenbaum, Matthew Bauman (Photo: Jenny Anderson)
Genius in the making. That's what you'll witness (about sixty years after the fact) at the York Theatre Company's revival of Saturday Night, with music and lyrics written by a young Stephen Sondheim as his first professional assignment. The musical was slated to open on Broadway in 1955, but its lead producer died before it was mounted and it didn't premiere until 1997 in London, followed by runs in Chicago and New York.

Sondheim's first professional musical lacks, for the most part, the sophisticated melodies of his later work. But the music is tuneful and appealing if not remarkable. The traditional score reflects the show's working class setting yet keeps the audience on its toes with counterpoint and round-like vocal overlay.

As for the lyrics, rhyme schemes tend to be more straightforward than signature Sondheim intricacies to come, but they're not without a surprise or two. For example, the master lyricist goes from "Cushman" in one line to "sex" in the next, then rhymes both with "Francis X. Bushman" in the third. Sondheim wit is in no short supply either.

Saturday Night is rooted in Brooklyn, where Gene (Ben Fankhauser) dreams of a more glamorous life while his buddies just dream of sex. The bridge across the East River is his rainbow, he sings, and he regularly seeks out what he considers his true element in Manhattan. One night he tries to crash an affair at the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. He doesn't get in but he meets Helen (Margo Seibert), another unsuccessful gate crasher. They predictably fall in love. Meanwhile Gene, eager to improve his station, gets in over his head by renting an apartment on Sutton Place, relying on a stock tip and tendering deposit money that isn't his.

The York production is the hundredth in its Musicals in Mufti series of little-known musicals produced without sets or costumes and with actors still "on book." Scripts are carried or placed on music stands. The young cast is game and energetic but often at close quarters. In group scenes, of which there are quite a few, they seem crowded with their music stands on the York's small stage. Ditto for entrances made en masse. Stafford Arima's direction is otherwise efficient and spirited.

Among the likable players, Margot Seibert, last season's Adrian on Broadway in Rocky, is a stand-out. Whether singing with a lovely voice or delivering a line with perfect timing, she breathes authenticity into the moment with unforced, casual clarity. She's a delight; no wonder Gene falls in love with her Helen.

The book for Saturday Night was written by Julius J. Epstein, based on the play Front Porch in Flatbush, which he co-wrote with his twin brother Philip. While Saturday Night has no pretensions of gravitas, its plot is sometimes so lightweight it floats away. It's hard to believe the Epstein brothers also wrote the screenplay for the film Casablanca, which is in another league entirely.

Of course, the reason to revive (and see, if you don't mind the forced story line) Saturday Night is its composer/lyricist. This seminal work is a portrait — or at least a snapshot — of an artist as a young man, an artist whose contribution to musical theater would go on to be enormous.

Saturday Night Book by Julius J. Epstein
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Director: Stafford Arima
Music Supervisor: Paul Gemignani
Cast: Matthew Bauman (Ted), Ben Fankhauser (Gene), Jeremy Greenbaum (Dino), Olli Haaskivi (Eugene Gorman "Pinhead"), Michael Thomas Holmes (Mr. Fletcher/Headwaiter), Greg Kamp (Artie), Andrew Keenan-Bolger (Bobby), Jared Loftin (Ray), Lindsay Mendez (Celeste), Kenita Miller (Florence/Female Vocalist), Lance Robers (Clune/Plaza Attendant), Matthew Scott (Hank), Margo Seibert (Helen), Jim Stanek (Mr. Fisher/Male Vocalist), and Dana Steingold (Mildred)
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Musical Director and Piano: Mark C. Mitchell
Stage Manager: Marci Skolnick
Production Manager: Kevin Maloof
Projection Design: Darrel Maloney
Running Time: 2hrs. 15 minutes

York Theatre Company at St. Peter's, Citicorp Building, E. 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue, 212-935-5820, From November 8, 2014; opening November 9, 2014; closing November 16, 2014
Reviewed by Michael Bracken based on November 9, 2014 matinee performance
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