Pillow Talking’s Review of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVERPublished: Friday, October 14, 2016
It was a Thursday not a Saturday, but no one seemed phased as everyone’s temperatures were running high at Westchester Broadway Theatre for Saturday Night Fever: The Musical. Based upon the iconic 1977 film by Norman Wexler (inspired by the 1976 New York Magazine article by Nik Cohn, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”) which starred the incomparable young John Travolta, Westchester brought a burst of the seventies disco era into 2016 for the kick-off of their 2017 season. Rife with bell bottoms, platform shoes, afros and perfectly coiffed, slicked back hair – this show and its pulsating score would have you dancing in the aisles if it weren’t for the fact that the actors themselves use much of the theatre for the action.
I was very young when Saturday Night Fever the film was popular but I did soon come to know about the classic dance moves Travolta popularized and I practiced them with friends in front of my bedroom mirror. I also was a huge fan of the Bee Gees (Barry, Robin, and Maurice) whose distinct harmonies, along with Barry’s falsetto, will forever be synonymous with disco and with Saturday Night Fever. Since it has been more years than I can count since I’ve seen the film, I was excited for Westchester’s stage version with all of its accompanying sensory delights – the sights, the sounds, and the energizing feel of the era.
Westchester surely did not disappoint – nor do they ever. With phenomenal direction by Richard Stafford, this tight cast, exceptional music (shout out to Ryan Edward Wise for musical direction, keyboard, and conducting), delightful choreography (thanks also to Stafford), and spot-on costumes and set design (by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case), audiences are transported back as if by a flick of a time machine switch to the shimmering, simmering seventies.
When Brooklyn-born, Italian-American Tony Manero (a charismatic Jacob Tischler) isn’t hawking cans of paint for mere peanuts at his dead-end job, he’s dreaming of another life – that of the sass and sophistication of the 2001: Odyssey dance club. He lives for the weekend when he can trade in the apron for his going-out clothes and his dancing shoes and escape his unemployed father’s working-class mentality. Looming large as well is his mother’s condemnation and the darkness of living in the shadow of his priest brother Frank Jr. (a convincing Frankie Paparone) which makes the lights of the disco ball seem that much brighter. It’s at Odyssey that Tony can be front and center as the reigning King of the dance floor while everyone adoringly watches in awe. Ray DeMattis as Frank Manero and Sandy Rosenberg as Flo Manero are terrific as Tony’s overbearing parents.
None of Tony’s friends have it figured out either – Chris Collins Pisano is authentic as the lost and confused Bobby who falls even farther when his girlfriend Pauline (the lovely Audrey Tesserot) announces he’s going to be a father. Raynor Rubel as Gus finds out the hard way that discrimination and lying don’t solve anything; and neither Double J (Joe Moeller) nor Joey (Christopher Hlinka) fare any better. Annette (Gianna Yanelli) may not be certain what she wants out of life, however, she is sure that Tony should somehow fit in – no matter how many times he spurns her.
But when Tony meets Stephanie Mangano (graceful and captivating songbird Alexandra Matteo) life as he knows it is upended – to him she’s refined, classy and he wants in – but she’s just struggling to find her own identity like the rest of them. He also wants her to partner with him in the dance contest at Odyssey, but she’s not so sure. Sparks ignite, but not always of the romantic kind and they soon realize they have more in common than Tony had imagined.
Additional stand-out performances are seen by Pat Roberts as Monty, the DJ whose kooky charm and skillful record spinning is infectious; and in Michelle Dawson, the powerhouse club singer Candy whom we’ve seen in numerous performances at WBT (including Showboat and Man of La Mancha during the 2016 season). Hannah Moore is delightful as Tony’s little sis Linda (in the role the night we attended; she alternates with Isabella D’Erasmo). And the dynamic, sure-footed ensemble tears up the dance floor – Anthony Avino (who doubles as Gabriel and Caesar), Josh Bates (who also is Joseph), Lauren Dalal (also as Maria), Christopher DeAngelis (who also plays Mr. Fusco, the hardware store owner, Pete, and Jay), Walter Filmore IV (also as Chester), Frankie Paparone (also as dance captain), Natalie Perez-Duel (also as Doreen and Elizabeth), Kristen Pope (also as Shirley), Audrey Tesserot, and Charity Van Tassel (also as Connie).
The non-stop energy of big hits such as “Stayin’ Alive,” “Boogie Shoes,” “Disco Inferno,” “How Deep is Your Love,” “Jive Talkin’,” “If I Can’t Have You,” “Night Fever,” and “You Should Be Dancing” fill the first act; “Nights on Broadway,” “What Kind of Fool,” “More Than a Woman,” “Tragedy,” fill the second. Kudos to associate conductor John Bowen on keys, assistant conductor John Delfin also on keys, David Shoup on guitar, Jordan Jancz on bass, and Ken Ross on drums/percussion. Final shout outs to Andrew Gmoser for spot-on lighting design and Jonathan E. Hatton for terrific sound design.
Never far from a smile, and laugh, and a tear, Saturday Night Fever transcends race, social class, and the mundane ills of life – and instead takes us to a place where we can pursue the things we love and feel that we belong. Whether you’re a product of the seventies or you just appreciate the retro feel of the era, you owe it to yourself to Westchester Broadway Theatre for this spirited stage confection.
Westchester Broadway Theatre always has been known for its high-quality, Broadway-caliber entertainment. But a special nod should go to its rather daring selection process of late. It’s powers-that-be have picked three iconic works IN A ROW with equally iconic characters so emblazoned in our collective consciousness that it it’s a wonder that any theatre would choose to stage more than one of these projects during a season.
Growing up with the Henry Winkler as “The Fonz,” I was skeptical and fearful that WBT’s Happy Days would jump the shark. But Nick Varricchio and the rest of the cast won me over early in the first act. The next batter up was Million Dollar Quartet with four of the possibly greatest singing stars of all time: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Lee Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The incredibly multi-talented cast under Hunter Foster’s superb direction, won me over again.
Could WBT do it a third time with Saturday Night Fever, the vehicle that propelled John Travolta to superstardom? I am happy to report that three times is a charm for WBT. Its production of Saturday Night Fever was dazzling; a singing, dancing, and acting feast for the senses. Indeed, although one cannot help but make comparisons to the film at times, WBT’s production stands on its own as a great, entertaining piece of theatre.
Director John Badham’s 1977 Saturday Night Fever remains a staggeringly authentic coming of age film for a generation that passed through the leisure suit and disco eras. The play captures all of the nuances of the time period down to the Rocky and Serpico posters. More significantly, the themes of identity, passion, broadening horizons, and entering adulthood are all captured and explored in the play.
Jacob Tischler as Tony Manero was wonderful. It’s hard enough adapting a film to the stage. It’s even harder taking an iconic character played by a superstar like Travolta and making that character your own, but Mr. Tischler did it with great aplomb. At no point is there a feeling that Tischler’s Tony Manero is a caricature or a cheap impersonation of Travolta. He truly does make the character a unique representation.
The same can be said for the rest of the excellent cast. Alexandra Matteo as Stephanie Mangano hits just the right tone as the Brooklyn-born girl trying to make a better life for herself across the river. She easily switches from the caustic cosmopolitan-wannabe to the vulnerable, young girl still tied to her roots and upbringing. The part of the sad sack, oft abused by his peers Bobby was perfectly played by Chris Collins-Pisano. Similar props must go to Gianna Yanelli who played the love-struck Annette. I thought Donna Pescow (who played the character in the film) would always be Annette for me, but Ms. Yanelli proved me wrong. Tony’s posse comprised of Gus, Double J, and Joey were expertly portrayed with flair by respectively, Raynor Rubel, Joe Moeller and Christopher Hlinka.
Whenever one grows up in a first-generation family with strong cultural and/or ethnic overtones, there are idiosyncrasies and, for lack of a better word, quirks that one experiences. My mother was one of nine children from an Italian family living in Yonkers and I can state with certainty that the entire Manero family was portrayed brilliantly (quirks included) by Ray DeMattis (Frank Manero), Sandy Rosenberg (Flo Manero), Frankie Paparone who did triple duty as Frank Jr., Dance Captain, and was part of the Ensemble, and the alternating actresses Isabella D’Erasmo & Hannah Moore as Linda Manero.
A special shout out to Michelle Dawson (who we loved as Aldonza in WBT’s Man of La Mancha).
The cast is far too large to mention everyone, but a show like this succeeds on the strength of a talented Ensemble cast and this could not apply more to WBT’s production.
Apart from the fact that the film is so entrenched in our pop culture, a theatrical musical adaptation can only succeed if the singing, dancing, and, in this particular show, the choreography is MasterCard priceless. Fortunately, veteran Broadway director and choreographer, Richard Stafford, was at the helm. His theatrical vision of the play (despite spatial limitations of the stage) rivaled the film’s breadth of vision being as it were a tale of two cities (Brooklyn and NYC), and was creatively conveyed via the excellent staging, blocking and set design with the Brooklyn Bridge being just as much a character as its flesh and blood inhabitants (thank you Michael Bottari and Ronald Case for set design). Mr. Stafford’s creative touches are not only evident in his blocking and staging (and obviously extracting great performances from the cast), but in his choreography – particularly the instances where the dancers go into slo-mo mode while other stage action continues in real time – a nice theatrical technique to compensate for the stage’s inherent limitations in a production like this.
For you bibliophiles out there, the play was adapted for the North American stage by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti and was based on the Paramount/RSO film and story by Nik Cohn.
And did I mention the timeless classic tunes of the Bee Gees and the disco era like” If I Can’t Have You”?
Whether it’s Saturday night, or any other night in the week, get yourself to WBT to experience the FEVER!