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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Obituary
Saturday Night Fever
I went to see Saturday Night Fever a week after its official opening and numerous thumbs down reviews had been filed. The good news is that the show is likely to keep a lot of young dancers, musicians and stage hands working long after the fevered declamations of the critical community has cooled -- shades of another critic-proof movie-inspired musical Footloose. After all, the advance is already reputed to match that for The Lion King.
And while I'm looking through my notes for the asterisks I use to flag up what's noteworthy, there are two very nice dance numbers -- "Open Sesame" and "Salsation."" Two numbers in a dance driven show? If this sounds like a case of damning with faint praise, add these facts. These numbers don't come until close to the end of Act II and neither is danced by the leading performers Tony and Stephanie (James Carpinello and Paige Price) but their fellow contestants at the Odyseey 2001 Disco, Chester and Shirley (Andrew Ward and Katharine Plantadit-Bageot ) and Cesar & Maria (Michael Balderrama and Natalie Willes). The rest of the dance scenes in this busy-busy-busy dance-driven musical are noteworthy largely for the sheer mass of dancing feet.
While the large ensemble contributes to the blockbuster spectacle of it all, Saturday Night Fever is essentially a star vehicle. Unfortunately, the silhouetted, blank-faced image that blazes across the Minskoff Theater's scrim curtain and across the Playbill cover is more likely to evoke images of John Travolta than James Carpinello's energetic but, alas, enervated, recreation of Travolta's star making role. You need only click back to our review of Stupid Kids to confirm that Carpinello is an actor who should do well on many casting calls, but when it comes to dancing -- that's real dancing as opposed to a lot of repetitive copy-cat Travolta gyrations and cockily raised arm -- I'd like to recommend my aerobic exercise teacher who happens to be an Italian-American named Tony. I know he could handle a lot of those dance routines with ease since he's incorporated quite a few of them into his classes.
Besides the amazing miscasting of the star (I use this adjective because in a city literally crawling with top-drawer charismatic dancers who can also sing and act, casting a star who only fulfills one of the role's triple requirements is nothing short of amazing), the show also suffers from being too little and too much like the movie. The film was not a musical but a drama with lots of dancing. The singing was provided by the soundtrack and not the actors. Nan Knighton's adaptations, tries to have it all -- the plot, the atmosphere of Brooklyn close to Manhattan physically but a world away symbolically, and even more dancing and songs sung by the performers. Indeed she's sandwiched it all in but without the flavor of the original. Instead of adapting what's most stageworthy Ms. Knighton has grabbed every element of the movie scenario but, to allow for all the song and dance routines and still get people home at a reasonable hour, the plot and the main characters come off as shadowy and undimensional as the poster silhouette image of Tony.
Robin Wagner's set design echoes this filled-to-the-brim approach -- the paint store where Tony works, his depressing home, the 2001 Odyssey Disco, the dance studio, the Manhattan apartment to which Stephanie moves and the Verazzano bridge that overhangs the Bay Ridge section that's so near yet so far from Manhattan and the hopes it represents. The bridge which plops down at regular intervals accommodates dancing and the tragedy of the biggest loser in Tony's crowd (Bobby C played by Paul Castree) as well as images of faux cars. In a twist on the bit about scenery chewing actors, all this scenery at times seems to chew up the performers. Add to this the head mikes which not only make everyone look like Borgs from Star Trek Voyager and you've got even the better singers (i.e., Orfeh who plays Tony's pathetic hanger-on, Annette) and strongest songs sound as if they were coming from a tunnel.
As I watched this behemoth musical, I caught myself recalling not just the Travolta film but a smaller and emotionally much more satisfying musical, Avenue X (this one had a Doo Wop beat) also about a group of youngsters trapped in a go-nowhere part of Brooklyn and with the device of a contest. Unfortunately, small musicals don't play well or long at the box office.
The only actor who manages to free himself from this tightly corseted production is Bryan Batt as the irrepressibly tacky dance impresario Monty. The brief scene in the studio when Tony and he have words over Monty's dancing with Stephanie, have more electricity than the Tony-Stephanie dance scenes. Batt also gets to sing one of the film's more enduring numbers, "Disco Duck." I can just picture him self-parodying his part as well as Carpinello's should he opt to return to the next installment of Gerald Allessandrini's Forbidden Broadway
Both the sanitized and the unexpurgated versions of the original film are available, as is the original London cast recording of the show
1977 PG version
NTSC Age 18 adup version
The CD of the London show and its cast
Reviews of other shows mentioned
Footloose(DC) and in NYC
Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back and Forbidden Broadway Cleans Up Its Act! both of which featured Bryan Batt