The 1977 movie that catapulted disco from urban subculture to mainstream trend has been turned into a big, splashy musical that satisfies on its own terpsichorean terms, though it fails to duplicate the film’s emotional intimacy. Faithfully following the screen story line, Saturday Night Fever focuses on Tony Manero, a working-class kid from Brooklyn whose dancing talent makes him the king of the neighborhood disco and offers him the only meaning in a “life goin’ nowhere.” Nineteen-year-old Tony–the latest in a line of sexy, romantic, but basically dumb musical-theater leading men that includes Show Boat’s Ravenal, Carousel’s Billy Bigelow, and West Side Story’s Tony–fumbles toward maturity through his relationship with his dance partner, Stephanie Mangano, who yearns for a better life over the Brooklyn Bridge. What was an ironic report from the front some 25 years ago is now a playful period piece highlighted by dynamic dancing and dramatic renditions of Bee Gees hits (“How Deep Is Your Love,” “More Than a Woman,” “Stayin’ Alive”)–songs that carry quite a punch when delivered by people who don’t sound like eunuchs. Richard H. Blake, displaying a powerful voice and the physique of a Roman god, is a charismatic Tony (though he lacks the engaging callowness John Travolta gave the character on-screen); he’s well supported by lissome, graceful Jeanine Meyers as Stephanie and by diminutive powerhouse Aileen Quinn as Annette, who sublimates her unrequited passion for Tony by submitting to a gang bang with his buddies. (Nan Knighton’s script smooths over some of the crude language and raw action of Norman Wexler’s screenplay, but this is decidedly not a family musical.) Suzi Benzinger’s costumes, Robin Wagner’s set, and Andrew Bridge’s lighting design simultaneously delight in and satirize the 70s disco milieu. With its dazzling cast pumping through Arlene Phillips’s high-energy choreography, Saturday Night Fever celebrates the youth and vibrancy of these beautiful young animals–but there’s a certain sadness in their disillusioning futures and, for some, untimely deaths. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, 312-902-1400. Through March 25: Tuesdays, 7:30 PM; Wednesdays, 2 and 7:30 PM; Thursdays, 7:30 PM; Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 2 and 8 PM; Sundays, 2 PM. $32.50-$75.50.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.