As I’m writing this review of Westchester Broadway Theatre’s dance-happy, song-packed production of “Saturday Night Fever,”, I’m also listening to the anthemic soundtrack from the 1977 movie. It is one of the best-selling and most acclaimed movie recordings in music history. It even is immortalized in The Library of Congress, as part of the prestigious National Recording Registry of culturally significant works.
The gold vault of memorable tunes from “Saturday Night Fever” vaulted already successful Australian pop vocalists The Bee Gees (The Brothers Gibb) into the pantheon of disco artists. Forty years later, their groundbreaking soundtrack feels and sounds as fresh and invigorating as ever.
Directed by John Badham and written by Norman Wexler, the movie kick-started the silver screen career of John Travolta, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, after he had become a TV star on sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
“Saturday Night Fever: The Musical” opened in 1999 on Broadway, where it played for more than 500 performances. That version was on stage this fall for 10 weeks at the dinner theater in Elmsford, and will return there for another run from Dec. 29-Jan. 29. Currently on the boards is the theater’s holiday musical “Christmas Inn” from Dec. 1-23. (Information: 914-592-2222; BroadwayTheatre.com.)
All of the above is a run-up to the inescapable fact that this Westchester Broadway Theatre show, the venue’s 198th production in its 42-year history, has a world-class pedigree to live up to. However, whether it does that or not really is beside the point. It is a stage musical that is built to entertain on its own terms.
You don’t have to be familiar with the movie to appreciate the themes—both musical and culturally—that inform “Saturday Night Fever,” but it adds an extra layer of nostalgic appreciation. Those who are audience alumni of the movie will repeatedly be tickled by numerous points of recognition throughout the narrative. It is like a memory album of events and names that defined the swingin’ ’70s. References are made to serial killer Son of Sam, the 1977 New York City blackout (mass power outage), a heat wave, Jets quarterback “Broadway” Joe Namath, movie hero Rocky, Yankees hitter Lou Piniella and hamburger chain White Castle.
There are other ways in which the stage show closely mirrors the landmark movie musical, such as dialogue that is carried over verbatim, including the jokey catchphrase, “Can you dig it? I knew that you could.” That line actually was appropriated by the movie from comedian Billy Crystal, who originated it in a 1976 performance on “Saturday Night Live.”
The movie “Saturday Night Fever” was based on a 1975 story in New York Magazine by Nik Cohn, who many years later acknowledged he made up the characters and the story, even though, when published, it was presumed by the magazine’s editors to be factual reporting.
Cohn’s tale of adolescent angst, romance and identity crisis tags along with Tony Manero (played by Jacob Tischler in the musical) and his too-cool-for-school cronies. They’re a clutch of sharp-dressing guys with carefully coiffed hair who humbly dub themselves The Faces. That’s their nom de disco when they swagger on Saturday nights, in a kind of flying-wedge formation, into Brooklyn club 2001 Odyssey.
Smooth-talking and smooth-moving Tony is the club’s de facto prince of glides on the dance floor. Former girlfriend Annette (Gianna Yanelli) wants to enter the upcoming dance contest with him, but he ditches her for new partner Stephanie (Alexandra Matteo).
Stephanie exhibits awkward and unconvincing pretensions to being a big city sophisticate: she continually drops the names of celebrities who visit the Manhattan PR agency where she works, like David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Paul Anka. Yet, Stephanie in truth is a naif who serves as Tony’s metaphorical bridge to his coming-of-age moment at play’s end.
Tony realizes that merely “Stayin’ Alive,” to quote one of the iconic Bee Gees songs, is not the point—and it surely is not enough for a meaningful existence. Pinning your hopes and dreams on a night of laughs and love once a weekend epitomizes “life goin’ nowhere,” to quote that song’s refrain, which pithily sums up the moral lesson of the story. Although no character in “Saturday Night Fever” does, or would, quote Socrates, I will for them: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Besides Stephanie, there’s another bridge that looms large, literally, in “Saturday Night Fever,” as it appears high above the stage: the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island, a place that Tony aspires to live for its more desirable lifestyle. (Given the 1970s sensibility mirrored in “Saturday Night Fever” that posited Brooklyn as beneath both Manhattan and Staten Island, four decades later, ironically in our time it is Brooklyn that millennials, and others, consider without equal as the place to be.)
One of the stars of the Westchester Broadway Theatre production is the set design by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case, who also designed the era-evocative costumes. The disco scenes are aglow in great lighting schemes by Andrew Gmoser, who always gets the most out of his theatrical effects.
The fluidly changing sets toggle between the outdoor bridge motif, the disco, a dance studio, and the home of Tony’s parents, which ascends into view intermittently on the stage’s trap lift, one of WBT’s best-used features in all of its shows.
The sound design by Jonathan Hatton and Mark Zuckerman adds appropriate ambience, with occasional street sounds filling the air.
All the familiar songs are here, though they are presented differently from what Bee Gees’ listeners are used to hearing, given the imperatives of musical theater structure and story-telling techniques. Some songs are not played out in full or in the same style as The Bee Gees’ recordings.
The energetic cast sings, dances and acts with professional precision. One standout deserving of special mention is Alexandra Matteo as Stephanie. When she sang “What Kind of Fool” at the performance I attended, I scribbled in my notepad, “American Idol” voice, if not better, and “brilliant pop vocalist.” She has the chops alright. As the jilted Annette, Gianna Yanelli also belts it out powerfully, on “If I Can’t Have You.”
Other songs include “Night Fever,” “Jive Talking,” “You Should Be Dancing,” and “How Deep Is Your Love.”