REVIEW: “Saturday Night Fever” at the Mac-Haydn

by Roseann Cane

The 1977 film Saturday Night Fever was a smash hit. Based on a 1995 New York Magazine article, Nik Cohn’s “Tribal Rites of a Saturday Night” (which Cohn admitted years later to be fictional), the film propelled John Travolta into stardom, and became the best-selling dance-centered movie of all time until 2010’s Black Swan.

Directed by John Badham with a screenplay by Norman Wexler, and music by the Bee Gees (one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time), it’s not difficult to understand the well-deserved success of the movie. The Bee Gees were commissioned by producer Robert Stigwood to write songs for the film. Not terribly well known at the time, the group created some of the songs during a single weekend, and gathered some songs they’d already written to add to the mix. “Stayin’ Alive” had already been written, and was one of the first songs ready to be used in the film. “Stayin’ Alive” will undoubtedly be forever associated with the movie, in no small part thanks to the movie’s stunning opening sequence.

 The stage musical of Saturday Night Fever, with a book by Nan Knighton in collaboration with Arlene Phillips, Paul Nicholas, and Robert Stigwood, and music by the Bee Gees, opened in London in 1998, and on Broadway the following year. It is now playing at Chatham, NY’s Mac-Haydn Theatre, directed by John Saunders.

The show opens with “Stayin’ Alive,” too, and in this production, the number falls flat. While James Kinney usually does a superb job choreographing the excellent dancers who grace the Mac-Haydn’s round stage, in this attempt to recreate the busy thoroughfare (86th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn), the chorus walks across the stage and back in “X” formation, bumping into each other (intentionally or accidentally, I couldn’t tell), and the effect is merely one of too many people crammed in too small a space. (Happily, Kinney more than redeems himself later.)

 As Tony Manero, the role originated by Travolta on screen, Daniel Velasquez is very attractive and gifted with a lovely singing voice. Unfortunately, when he is speaking, he frequently sounded as if he were doing a John Travolta impression down to the cadence, and the effect is disruptive; we don’t know where Tony is. It pulls us out of the play. By the end, though, I was gratified that he had stopped impersonating and became his own Tony, Brooklyn accent intact.

 What is terrific about this production are the scenes in the disco club 2001 Odyssey. Lighting designer Andrew Gmoser, scenic designer Kevin Gleason, sound designer Ethan Carleton, choreographer Kinney, and director Saunders have collaborated to transform the entire theater into an authentic disco complete with mirrored disco ball. The lighting design was so successful that it felt as if the audience were right in the club, amid flashing lights and nimble, gyrating dancers.

 I’ve written before about my personal distaste for mic’ing actors, especially in a small theater, but the mics, at least in the particular way they were used in this show, created a serious problem that was impossible to overlook. Early in the show, Tony has an undressing sequence in which he faces a mirror, preening and dancing. The headset part of the mic is usually visible to the audience because of its placement on the actor’s head and face. The body pack transmitter that goes with it is hidden under the actor’s costume. When Mr. Velasquez stripped down to his tight black briefs, his body pack transmitter, roughly the size of two stacked decks of cards, was an abundantly visible protrusion beneath his briefs at the approximate area of his coccyx. At this point Mr. Velasquez was heartily bumping, grinding, and shimmying. To my mind, there was no justification for the placement of that body pack. I felt badly for the actor. The sequence had me cringing, and was at once embarrassing and silly.

 From that point on, I couldn’t help but notice the body packs bulging through most of the cast’s costumes. This was certainly no fault of costume designer Angela Carstensten, who did a fine job clothing the cast. Disco-era clothing is sleek and body-hugging, and I wish that someone either did away with the body packs or devised a better way to disguise them. Certainly, if one was to be placed in Mr. Velasquez’s briefs, he should not have had to strip down to them.

 The production boasts a fine group of actors, singers, and dancers, including Kate Zulauf (Stephanie Mangano), Gabe Belyeu (Monty), belter extraordinaire Aneesa Folds (Candy), and Sophia Tsougros (Annette). As Tony’s parents Frank and Flo, Pat Wemitt and Erin Spears Ledford were well cast, except that Miss Ledford looked far too young to be Tony’s mother, a problem that can easily be fixed with makeup.

My biggest complaint about the stage version of Saturday Night Fever is not about the Mac-Haydn production, but about the script itself. It completely lacks the pathos that was so abundant in the film. That the actors sing the songs from the film disrupts characterization. It is not a film that adapts well to the stage.

It is however, entertaining, and the audience members left the theater delighted. I heard many people exclaim that they had great fun watching the show. If you can go without any expectation that Saturday Night Fever meets the standards of the movie, you’ll find lots to enjoy.

Saturday Night Fever runs July 6-23, 2017, at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 NY Route 203 in Chatham, NY. Book by Nan Knighton in collaboration with Arlene Phillips, Paul Nicholas, and Robert Stigwood. Music by the Bee Gees (Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb.) Directed by John Saunders; Lighting designer Andrew Gmoser; scenic designer Kevin Gleason; sound designer Ethan Carleton; choreographer James Kinney; costume designer Angela Carstensten. CAST: Daniel Velasquez (Tony Manero), Kate Zulauf (Stephanie Mangano), Gabe Belyeu (Monty), Aneesa Folds (Candy), Sophia Tsougros (Annette), Pat Wemitt (Frank Manero), Erin Spears Ledford (Flo Manero), Dan Macke (Bobby), Sam Pickart (Gus), Ross Flores (Double-J), Alex Carr (Joey), Quinn Corcoran (Frank Manero, Jr.), Laura Michele Erle (Pauline), Lauren Wrigley (Linda Manero), Dakota Dutcher (salesman/Jay/Joseph Cursa), Bryce McAllister (Stephanie’s Dance Partner/Cesar Rodriguez), Stephen C. Kallas (Gabriel), Connor Hubbard (Chester Brinson), Megan Hasse (Stayin’ Alive Girl/Shirley Charles), Catherine Skojec (Doreen/Elizabeth Cursa), Katie Skawski (Girl), Michelle Carter (Waitress), Kelly Gabrielle Murphy (Connie), and Steffany Pratt (Maria Huerta).

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