Saturday Night Fever is one of those bona fide classics. The film starring John Travolta was a gritty depiction of working class life in the Bay Ridge suburbs of the Bronx set to a genre defining soundtrack. That musical backbeat to the tribulations of Tony Manero formed the cornerstone of the phenomenon that would become disco. The stage version, currently on tour at Manchester Palace, therefore was a must see event for all those lovers of glitter balls, iconic white suits and some killer dance moves that Wigan Casino veterans would no doubt remember in their heyday.
It’s easy to forget that the original film was not a musical in the conventional sense. The Bee Gees inspired soundtrack helped put disco on the map, showcasing why the genre was becoming an influence in that era, highlighting the symphony-orchestrated melodies; the haute couture styles of clothing; the sexual promiscuity, all epitomised by the moves on the dance floor.
Trying to fill those big shoes is Richard Winsor, who has the unenviable task of putting his own mark on the role rather than some Travolta pastiche. To his credit, as the production wears on, he does exactly that. He’s clearly studied Travolta’s portrayal of Manero and you can see the influences and touches that are a homage to the role’s greatest exponent. Winsor also brings it where it matters, which is on the dancefloor. His dancing is a real delight and is one of the highlights of the evening as he leads the company on several disco infused choreographed musical numbers, that has everyone clapping and whooping with joy.
He’s aided and abetted by a wonderful supporting cast, including some real charming performances from Kate Parr as Stephanie Magano and Anna Campkin as the tragic Annette. There is also a wonderful tribute group to the Bee Gees, who take centre stage of sorts, that allows them to instill the heart and soul of this piece through the music of Saturday Night Fever. It’s exactly the heartbeat that this show needs, setting the pulse to a rhythm that the show can rise to.
Designer Garry McCann should also be commended for a wonderful inspirational stage design that more than doths its cap to the film version. With so much of the story set inside a nightclub and with so many memories of that dance floor, the use of a mirror to bring that iconic floor to life is pure genius.
Here’s the thing though, we all love disco. The memories of the genre is upbeat melodies, killer hooks and dancing grooves. Tracks such as Stayin Alive, Disco Inferno and You Should Be Dancing have those in the aisles bopping away. And yet, Saturday Night Fever is a dark, dark, dark story. Themes such as an abusive father, familial strife, rape, racism, suicide … not exactly a cheerful platform for tunes that are intrinsically want to be all happy and joyful.
This is what the stage version wrestles with throughout the performance. The jarring of a company dancing and singing to classic disco tunes that have you tapping your feet, to heavy ladened dramatic moments where there is no need for a sound to be uttered is palatable. Nevertheless, the stage finally delivers this denouement right at the end, with its tragic ending, director Bill Kenwright is able to find the balance between high drama and the music.
Verdict: Relive the days of disco with this wonderful tribute to one of the iconic films of the era. Saturday Night Fever is exactly what you’d hoped it would be, gritty dramatic moments interlaced with an infectious Bee Gee-tasitc soundtrack.