Temperatures reach fever pitch as the sizzling seventies disco musical, Saturday Night Fever, turns up the heat at The Laguna Playhouse.
The jukebox version of “Saturday Night Fever,” now at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, is not the same one that opened on Broadway in 1999, although it did run for 501 performances and spawned multiple touring and international productions. This modification, based on the Paramount/RSO picture by Nik Cohn, is credited to Robert Stigwood, the early Bee Gee’s personal manager and movie’s producer (in collaboration with Bill Oaks), with new musical arrangements, orchestrations and three new songs written by David Abbinanti, though the bursts of dialogue stick pretty close to the film’s script.
But, you don't go to "Saturday Night Fever: The Musical" for the plot anyway — you go for the big dance numbers. Fortunately, director/choreographer Karen Babcock Brassea (Nat’l Premieres: “Cats,” “Chess”) delivers big time in this area: the numbers at the disco, with the cast decked out in perfect late 1970s outfits, are all dynamite and give a shot of adrenaline to the production in a slick, entertaining evening of fun. Officially opening July 3rd, the musical brought the house down in a prelude to the upcoming fireworks, set to run through Sunday, July 17th.
Musically Directed by Ricky Pope, the show wastes no time delivering what the audience has come to hear: that Bee Gees disco beat, depositing you into that world of cool guys and the girls who worship them or break their hearts: “Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me,” and “Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’/And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.”
The movie actually 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 the sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, most of them squealing teenage girls.
Interestingly, The Bee Gees weren't even involved in the movie in the beginning. Travolta was dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs. But then producer Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to create the songs for the film, who wrote the songs in virtually a single weekend at a studio in France. At the time, they had no concept of the wild fandom that would follow, launching one of the most popular dance eras of all time. Fueled by the film's success, the soundtrack broke multiple industry records, becoming the highest-selling album in recording history. With more than 40 million copies sold, "Saturday Night Fever" is still among music's top five best-selling soundtrack albums.
But you don’t have to be familiar with either the movie or the musical to appreciate the themes or to get that extra layer of nostalgic appreciation. Those who are audience alumni of the movie will, however, be delighted 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, a heat wave, Jets quarterback “Broadway” Joe Namath, movie hero Rocky, Yankees hitter Lou Piniella and hamburger chain White Castle.
There are also 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 for the movie from comedian Billy Crystal, who originated it in a 1976 performance on “Saturday Night Live.”
Stigwood’s tale of adolescent angst, romance and identity crisis tags along with Tony Manero (played by Dorian Quinn; “Jersey Boys”) 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 in on Saturday nights in a kind of flying-wedge formation, into Brooklyn club 2001 Odyssey as they watch smooth-talking, smooth-moving Tony nurture his supremacy as the club’s de facto prince of glides on the dance floor. Tony lives only for the disco where his bump and grind rules. He’s a narcissist with heart, a self-promoter whose self-esteem has taken its share of knocks. But every Saturday night Tony slips into his flares, pulls on his band-collared silk shirt, his chains, and becomes the polyester-clad stallion king of disco.
The signposts of the film are firmly in place in this new stage adaptation. Tony still abandons former girlfriend and dance partner Annette (Daniella Castoria; “A Chorus Line”), the local good girl overcome by lust, for Manhattan-bound Stephanie Mangano (Natalie Kastner; “Sweet Charity”), a saucy, executive secretary busily exalting her newfound life of two-hour lunch breaks. But Stephanie exhibits unconvincing pretensions to being a big city sophisticate: she continually drops the names of celebrities who visits the big gun agency where she works, like David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Paul Anka. And back in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, older brother Frankie (Patrick Murray; “Elf”) forsakes the priesthood, while Tony’s cronies talk only of “makin’ it” – which they do in a climax by the Verrazano Bridge that eerily channels a “West Side Story” scene.
The performance by Dorian Quinn is a great cocky affirmation, and his performance as Tony Manero is a captivating, singular, par excellence, exuding a confident, consummate star quality that will definitely turn heads. Veering unashamedly into strut territory, Mr. Quinn's seminal swagger and sidewalk-level reverse track ignites the musical's intro – en route to work, carrying a tin of paint – backed by the obligatory Bee Gees anthem "Stayin’ Alive." Manero summarises the infectious appeal of his moves before his final scene: “You know what I want to do? Strut!”
At home, however, he's still treated like a kid. When he gets a $4 raise at the hardware store, his father says, "You know what $4 buys today? It don't even buy $3.''
Meanwhile, in his bedroom, with its posters of Al Pacino and "Rocky," he begins his solemn, matadorish ritual of dressing for the disco. First he strips to his bare chest, admires himself in the mirror, painstakingly combs his hair, puts on his gold chains, and steps into his disco suit with a funny little undulation as he slides the zipper up (the peculiar construction of disco pants is a marvel of modern engineering. So loose at the ankles, yet so tight in the groin). At the dinner table, his dad slaps him, and he's wounded: "Would you just watch the hair? I work a long time on my hair, and you hit it!''
With a total ensemble of 23, Laguna Playhouse’s “Saturday Night Fever” will be hard to beat. The entire cast deserves praise, but will mention a few additional standouts.
An outstanding performance in the show is Bryce Bayer’s (“Kinky Boots”) portrayal of Bobby C. His sympathetic portrayal as this underdog character resonates with the audience in a gut-wrenching performance as this tragic character, and does an impressive song and dance with Pauline (Erika Harper; “A Chorus Line”) which brings down the house in the number “Jive Talking,” and also performs another cracking dance number to “Dog Eat Dog” with his friends, Joey (Johann Santos; “Mamma Mia!”), Gus (Benji Godley-Fisher) and Double-J (William Nelson; “Head Over Heels”).
Another golden crown of the show is Dwan Hayes (“Ghost”) with her soulful power vocals in “Disco Inferno,” “Night Fever,” “Open Sesame,” “More Than a Woman,” and “Nights of Broadway.” The Manero family members are expressively played by Jonathan Van Dyke as the father, Judy Mina-Ballard as the mother, and Izzy Valdez Ayres-Kaplan as little sister. There were also some wonderful salsa moves executed by the team of Ellery Smith (“Jesus Christ, Superstar”) and Benji Godley-Fisher (“Newsies”) on the number "Salsation." And, for sheer entertainment value, Ryan Mulvaney dons his sequins and golden flares to portray Monty, disco's testosterone-charged gift to women.
Watching the musical, “Saturday Night Fever” is like opening a time capsule to a blue-collar corner of Brooklyn that was consumed by ’70s-style disco fever. It was a place where a 19-year-old guy with a dead-end job by day could be king of the dance floor by night. If you were a teenager in the 70’s, we all have a powerful memory of the person we were then when we formed a vision for our lives. Tony Manero stands poised precisely at that moment. He makes mistakes, he fumbles, he says the wrong things, but when he dances, he feels a special grace. And we feel it too.
“You make it with some of these girls,” says Tony, “and the next thing you know they expect you to dance with ’em.”
LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE PRESENTS – “SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER;” Based on the Paramount/RSO Picture and the story by NIK COHN; Adapted for the stage by ROBERT STIGWOOD, in collaboration with BILL OAKS; Musical Arrangements and Orchestrations by DAVID ABBINANTI; Featuring songs by THE BEE GEES; Musical Direction by RICKY POPE; Directed and Choreographed by KAREN BABCOCK BRASSEA; Scenic Design by CHRIS STRANGFELD; Lighting Design by CLIFFORD SPULOCK; Sound Design by IAN SCOT; Production Stage Manager MICHAELINA MILLER; Production Stage Manager LILA MULLINS; Production Supervisor GAIL ANDERSON.
WITH: HALEY AYERS, BRYCE BAYER, DANIELLA CASTORIA, AVA CUSITER, KRISTEN DANIELS, BENJI GODLEY-FISHER, ERIKA HARPER, DWAN HAYES, NATALIE KASTNER, AJ LOVE, JUDY MINA-BALLARD, RYAN MULVANEY, PATRICK MURRAY, WILLIAM NELSON, PRESLEY NICHOLSON, DORIAN QUINN, JOHANN SANTOS, ELLERY SMITH, LUCY SWINSON, KYLE URBANIAK, IZZY VALDEZ AYRES-KAPLAN, JONATHAN VAN DYKE, KATIE VAN HORN.
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER will run through Sunday, July 17th; Performances will be Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30PM and Saturdays at 2:00PM and 7:30PM; Sundays at 1:00PM and 5:30PM (No performance on July 13th) at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach. Tickets are $55-95. Tickets can be purchased by calling 949-497-2787 or visiting www.lagunaplayhouse.com
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jason Niedle