Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse scores a coup with its world premiere of Saturday Night Fever, in a new North American production from author Sean Cercone and lyricist David Abbinanti that runs through Aug. 12.
Cercone has reshaped material from the stage version of Saturday Night Fever, which has been kicking around in national tours since 1998. The Bee Gees’ throbbing soundtrack, taken from the 1977 disco movie that catapulted John Travolta to stardom, has been largely retained, including “Night Fever” and “Staying Alive.” Three new Abbinanti originals have been added to the framework, although they don’t quite mesh with the Bee Gees’ dance-floor standards.
Despite an abundance of platform shoes and bell bottoms, this Fever feels like a riff on West Side Story with a wocka-wocka beat. Cercone’s adaptation hews fairly close to the movie, although the coarse language and raunchy ripostes have been tamped down, all to chart the coming-of-age saga of Tony Manero (played by Sam Edgerly), a 19-year-old paint store employee in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge section.
Tony blows his money every weekend with his dead-end buddies at the discotheque, where he really shines with his ultra-cool hoofing. For an upcoming dance contest with a lucrative cash prize as an incentive, Tony seems resigned to enlist his hotsy ex-girlfriend Annette (Maddy Apple) as his dance partner. But Tony is more interested in Stephanie (Jessica Lea Patty), a dancer who projects an aura of unattainable mystique.
Director-choreographer Brett Smock hits Fever’s sweet spot with pulsating, epic-scale dance numbers that skillfully time-warp patrons back to the velvet-rope era. Aiding Smock’s funky flashback are Stanley A. Meyer’s scenic design, which features a stylized backdrop of metallic stairways and girders that double for the disco scenes as well as the Brooklyn Bridge, and music director Corinne Aquilina’s dynamic orchestrations.
MGR’s Fever occasionally feels like a work in progress, however, with several dramatic scenes lacking the needed punch. Cercone’s thematic reworking of some Bee Gees tracks is also hit and miss: “If I Can’t Have You” becomes a slowed-down ballad of unrequited love, winningly warbled by Maddy Apple’s Annette, although Tony’s rendition of “Tragedy” following one character’s accidental death seems obvious. Oddly, the male cast members aren’t sporting blown-dry pompadours; during the Carter administration, the guys’ hairdos were the poufy equals of the ladies.
On stage from nearly start to finish, Sam Edgerly maintains both a Travolta-esque accent and a polyester swagger for his naïve Tony. Jessica Lea Patty mines the complexities of her Stephanie, a gofer for a talent agency who carries off herself with an air of self-importance. Yet Stephanie is closer to Tony’s blue-collar roots than she lets on, especially when her dialogue lapses into Norm Crosby-style malapropisms.
In supporting roles, Maddy Apple lends sympathy for her man-crazy Annette; Levi Morger is believably uptight as Tony’s older brother, Frank, who has renounced the priesthood; Luke Yellin is emotionally confused as the most troubled member of Tony’s posse; and Syracuse University Drama Department faculty member Celia Madeoy ably sidesteps the clichés of Tony’s heavily Catholic mom. Madeoy even boogies “The Bump” during the curtain call!