NMST’s ‘Saturday Night Fever’ A Disco Inferno (4.5 Stars)

‘Saturday Night Fever’ – Based on the Paramount/RSO Film and the story written by Nick Cohn; Featuring songs by Bee Gees (and others); Directed by Richard Stafford; Scenic Design by Michael P. Kramer; Costume Design by Paula Peasley-Ninestein; Lighting Design by Kirk Bookman; and Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Rd., Beverly, through August 23rd.

As I was driving up to see “Saturday Night Fever”, the latest musical offering of the summer season by the North Shore Music Theatre, I think what I was expecting to see was a night of good campy disco fun – and I was mostly right. But what I had forgotten about the 1977 film that launched the disco craze was that there was actually a pretty good narrative apart from the dancing in the movie. This should not have been surprising given that the writer was Norman Wexler, who was nominated twice for screenwriting Oscars before “Saturday Night Fever”, including one for the Al Pacino film Serpico.

This newest musical version actually focuses more closely on the story of a couple of young adults (Tony Manero and Stephanie Mangano) who – unlike their friends in the neighborhood – realize they’re “going nowhere” and want a better life than just punching the clock and surviving. The love story is also elevated way past the movie version, but much of the original plot and dialogue remain intact, including some priceless lines that would be considered laughably sexist today.

The change in focus is never more evident than in the two new songs that were added to the current production – “Top of Your Game” and the aptly titled “Stuck” by David Abbinanti. Both reflect the hopelessness of the Italian neighborhood in working class Brooklyn where the story takes place. Not only do the added tunes enhance the dramatic plot, but “Stuck” may be the best number in the show, which is saying a lot considering the original movie soundtrack sold 30 million copies.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Tony (Sam Wolf) works in a dead end job as a clerk in a paint store, and his relief comes in two forms, hitting on girls and dancing on Saturday nights at 2001 Odyssey, a disco club. Tony is the main man in the club, based on his good looks and extraordinary dancing talents, and he parlays those attributes into having his pick of the ladies – at least those in his own social strata. When a new girl shows up at the club (Stephanie), he is smitten not only by her beauty, but her grace on the dance floor. He soon convinces her to be his dance partner for the BIG DANCE CONTEST (dumping his old partner, Annette, who is still crazy about him) and he begins an awkward romantic pursuit.

But enough about the book. A packed house was there to see music and dancing, and this production delivers big on both fronts. Not surprisingly, the best dance numbers come inside the club, particularly “Disco Inferno” (belted out by Haley Swindal as “Candy” and Pat McRoberts as DJ “Monty”) and “Nights on Broadway” (also sung by Swindal). Those hoping for a note-by-note treatment of the Bee Gees songs may be disappointed initially, but the new renditions add a different dimension to the songs that really works. As Annette, Kirstin Tucker does a heart-wrenching slow version of “If I Can’t Have You” and Tessa Grady as Stephanie does an equally touching turn with “What Kind of Fool” (which was not on the original soundtrack but fits in nicely with the narrative), and she also teams with Tony on “How Deep is Your Love”, one of the evening’s highlights.

This a decidedly PG version, as the language has been toned down considerably from the film. For instance, the scene where Bobby C. asks Tony’s former priest brother if he thinks the Pope would grant his girlfriend a special dispensation for an abortion has been struck. The costumes are pretty accurate, and while the style of the women’s outfits have the same intended wild sex appeal as they did in the 70’s, the men’s outfits had one thought running through my head, “What the hell were we thinking?” But the musical is further evidence that Disco Definitely Does Not Suck. See this show. For more info, go to: http://www.nsmt.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1012&Itemid=2519