SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER – ⭐️⭐️ – this nostalgia trip has more than a few bumps

Photograph by Paul Coltas

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER

based on the Paramount/RSO film and the story by Nik Cohn

adapted for the stage by Robert Stigwood in collaboration with Bill Oakes

Directed by Bill Kenwright

Peacock Theatre – until 26 March 2022

https://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/saturday-night-fever/

“You should be dancing, yeah!” goes the oft-repeated chorus of the Bee Gees hit that loomed large in the original Saturday Night Fever movie soundtrack and closes the first half of this stage version. Frankly though, I didn’t feel much like dancing after a couple of hours of this sloppily directed, patchily acted mess of an adaptation.

The lavish 1998 West End musical which made a star out of Adam Garcia in the Travolta role of Tony Manero and transferred to Broadway had it’s issues but it was a masterpiece compared to this wan effort. Arlene Phillips’s Palladium production found the natural dynamism in the disco hits and infused the songs with a potent, thunderous theatricality thanks to Nigel Wright’s orchestrations and Phil Edwards’s dance and vocal arrangements. Plus the choreography was thrilling.

Almost none of that is true of Bill Kenwright’s infinitely more pedestrian staging which may be closer in tone to the darkness of the movie but seldom if ever takes wing as a piece of dance magic. Award winning choreographer Bill Deamer comes seriously unstuck here: the moves that aren’t cribbed directly from the film are frantic, inelegant, clumsy…a long way from sexy and cool. Deamer is a master of traditional musical staging, winning his Olivier for the tap heavy Top Hat, but is a bizarre choice for this; his work here is far from inspired, except for the second act competition sections, which are closer to Strictly than Studio 54.

Any stage adaptation of Norman Wexler’s grimly hyper-realistic original screenplay inevitably struggles with reconciling the seamier aspects of the story (abortion, suicide, rape, drug abuse, the casual misogyny and racism) with the standard musical theatre requirement to send the audience out on a high, crazed with spectacle, high energy dancing and uplifting music. It’s a pretty sour tale anyway, closer to docudrama than musical fantasy, despite the banging soundtrack: and while one could argue that it’s of it’s time, it’s pretty hard, in 2022, to root for a leading male character who actually says in all seriousness to a young woman “you’ve gotta decide what you are. Are you a nice girl or a bitch.” Gross.

Richard Winsor is incredibly handsome but reads as at least a decade too old, as well as too nice and too, well, English to convince as a streetwise Italian American youngster who plays the big man with his crowd of less remarkable pals but still resides with his parents and lives for the weekend when he can release it all on the dancefloor. He isn’t the best disco dancer in the company, which is unhelpful given the plot, and only really looks terpsichoreally comfortable in a smoothly executed, more classically choreographed fantasy sequence that recalls the work of Matthew Bourne, for whom Winsor worked extensively before becoming a TV name. Elsewhere, his moves lack the requisite joy and abandon.

Olivia Fines fares better as snotty Stephanie, the upwardly mobile object of his affection. She’s hardly a sympathetic character but Fines does invest her with an inner life, plus she dances like a dream. Probably best to draw a veil over some of the other acting, but the energetic company sells the whole show for rather more than it’s actually worth. The accents are mostly dreadful (no dialect coach is credited… and it shows).

This particular production doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be: it isn’t an integrated musical, preferring instead to have a trio of game young men shuffling aimlessly on and off with falsettos and fright wigs, playing the Bee Gees singing the songs commenting on the action. Strictly Ballroom and Dirty Dancing onstage both went down similar routes, with varying degrees of success. It doesn’t make for satisfying musical theatre but at least the songs sound like the original recordings. Confusingly though, three of the principal characters then get solo numbers, à la the Palladium musical, which make little sense given that at no other point do any lead characters sing. For suicidal Bobby C’s rendition of Tragedy, Deamer’s choreo for the chorus pays homage to the Steps dance moves for that track, which is a bit weird given that their version didn’t come out until at least twenty years after Saturday Night Fever. Ah well.

Gary McCann’s set of wrought iron staircases, platforms and walkways looks like leftovers from a budget tour of West Side Story, but is undeniably enhanced by eye-catching video designs by Nina Dunn. Nick Richings’s lighting makes vivid and clear the differentiation between the garishness of the discotheque and the dullness of day-to-day life.

The best screen-to-stage adaptations, from The Producers to the musical of The Full Monty, and including several of the Disney shows, work because they legitimately add something else to the story by placing them in a theatre. That just isn’t the case here, although it’s always fun to hear these disco classics done live. Ultimately, this is a lethargic, dispiriting evening capturing very little of the excitement of the film, the disco scene or the vibrant city in which is set: sadly, it’s more Birkenhead than Brooklyn.

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