Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Saturday Night Fever – painting the light fantastic (Grand Opera House until Saturday 5 October)

Paint shop worker by day, dancer by night, Tony fancies his chances at winning $1,000 in the local discotheque if he can find the right partner. He blows off Annette who is crazy about him and sets his eyes on Stephanie, a classy dancer who is his equal on the dance floor, but isn’t interesting in a relationship.

Saturday Night Fever excels when the cast strike a pose and deliver highly choreographed routines that rival the verve you’ll see on Strictly on the weekend tellybox. They’re a tight ensemble, backed by mostly live music performed by a five-piece band high up at the back of the set, and accompanied by three harmonising falsetto Bee Jee lookalikes wearing gold lame suits and flamboyant wigs.

Richard Winsor never drops the poise of a dancer (he trained at the Central School of Ballet) and gives the lead role of Tony Manero a sense of aloofness and control. His chin is permanently up, his frame straight up and down, looking through the audience and never into the eye of his partner. He’s as at home unselfconsciously dancing alone as he is dancing in a twosome or out front of the whole troupe.

Opposite him, Olivia Fines gives Stephanie Mangano a tough mask that repels Tony’s advances until the pair drop their guard in the second act only for Tony to go too far with no consent, an act papered over quickly but repeated by his mates with vulnerable Annette. (Tony believes that the opposite sex are either ‘nice girls’ or ‘bitches’, not realising that he’s the bastard for being so binary.) A great dancer, Fines also has a good voice and the audience lover her rendition of What Kind of Fool.

The third side of the Tony love triangle is played by Natasha Firth. As Annette, she belts out a great If I Can’t Have You before the interval. Faizal Jaye’s over the top DJ Monty deserves a mention too for the energy he blasts into the disco scenes.

Set in 1975, Saturday Night Fever shows its age with a Brooklyn worldview that can only see life through a male gaze. Bobby is consumed with panic when his girlfriend discovers she is pregnant and wants to marry him and won’t contemplate an abortion: those are the only two options ever on the table. Never does Nan Knighton’s book allow Pauline to share her story, or even have space to react to the lad’s eventual suicide.

When the two lead performers dance to the final How Deep is Your Love, the two follow spots stay on white-suited Tony, leaving Stephanie in relative shade, despite there only being two people on stage. Misogyny is baked into the whole production.

The show’s energy ebbs the longer dialogue is allowed to continue. Some scenes are close to unintelligible as the guys babble over the top of each other; others are unintelligent with unsophisticated questions and answers that just about move the quite dark plot forward. And goodness knows how the off-colour Elton John ‘joke’ has stayed in the show: it doesn’t deserve any laughter but is rewarded with disturbing roars from the stalls.

But when the glitter balls drop down (at least eight across the auditorium, maybe more) and the Gibb brothers strut onto their raised platform and someone puts another quarter into the jukebox, there is magic in the air as shapes are thrown, costumes flutter and the audience watch moves that they can only dream about pulling off themselves. (Though two older gentlemen managed to demonstrate some flair and vigour in the aisle during the finale megamix, the buffer at the end of every piece of jukebox musical theatre.)

Bill Kenwright’s touring production does little to update a story that has grown old since the original much-loved 1977 screenplay and film. It’s a Tragedy, but the show keeps on Stayin’ Alive with tunes that are strong, the dancing stronger. Gary McCann’s unfussy but effective set stylishly drops in new locations, while Nick Richings’ discotastic lighting design helps compensate for the unexceptional plot and the cast and creatives keep everyone’s toes tapping throughout the two and a half hour show.

Saturday Night Fever runs at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 5 October with matinees on Thursday and Saturday and two shows on Friday evening when U105’s Johnny Hero will be spinning the decks with your favourite 70’s tunes after the show.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

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