There are probably few people of a certain age in America who are unfamiliar with Saturday Night Fever. The 1977 film has been entered into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” The Bee Gees-filled Soundtrack Album is still the #2 best-selling film soundtrack of all time, beaten only by Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard. It’s all a matter of how effectively the famous songs are integrated into the storyline and how well the cast executes the familiar moves and story in the performance.
The current production of Saturday Night Fever at The Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, hits some incredible highs as well as some significant lows in pulling it off.
You’ve got to give them credit for understanding the disco experience, though. From the moment you walk in, they’ve replaced bulbs in the chandeliers and wall sconces with multi-colored versions, turning the whole thing into a 1970s disco palace as much as possible. They’re playing disco hits over the sound system. The set design is as clever. The whole story, no matter where the action is taking place, is embraced by the velvet-covered booths of the 2001 Odyssey nightclub. You’re all set to have some fun.
And some of it is incredibly fun. The costumes are spot on, capturing the era to perfection. They have absolutely cast some amazing talent in this show. And weirdly, in a show all about dancing, it’s the acting that stands out. Everything to do with the working-class drama of Tony Manero and his Brooklyn family and friends is fresh and relevant and superb. Ably led by Adrian Aguilar as Tony, the cast absolutely digs right into the heart of the drama of a young man looking for a way to get out of his dead-end life.
Other than his job in a hardware store, disco is the one thing Tony has got going for him and he means to do what he can to let it get him out of Brooklyn. In doing so he has to avoid being dragged down by his neighborhood friends with no ambition and Annette, his dance partner who wants to become his life partner.
Aguilar is totally believable in the role, and it’s when he’s being Tony instead of aping John Travolta being Tony that he really shines. He dances incredibly well and sings all he right notes. The play doesn’t make him try to sing the famous songs in the Bee Gee’s key. In fact, they don’t even make the girls hit those notes.
Other standout performances include Alex Newell as the club owner, Candy, who sings many of the famed disco diva songs in the show. Nick Cosgrove as Bobby C., Tony’s only friend with ambition. And Skyler Adams as ex-priest Frank, Tony’s brother. In fact, every actor who plays a Manero does a great job. The family fights are some of the best acting in the show. And Erica Stephan as Stephanie is notable for her dancing and a really nicely delivered version of “What Kind of Fool.”
Most of the famous songs are integrated fairly well into the story, many taking place at critical points in the narrative, and some just being used during dance scenes like they were in the original film. The glaringly horrible Jive Talking (Note the original song was Jive Talkin’) made me and my companion want to crawl underneath our chairs because it was so bereft of anything resembling soul. It was like watching an old episode of Lawrence Welk trying to do disco, it was painfully, painfully square. And the ham-handed way the song was integrated into the storyline made it even worse. You felt horrible for everyone involved in that fiasco. But it was the nadir of an otherwise mostly enjoyable show. Just brace yourself.
Though they are excellent actors, and strong dancers, most of the girls are weak singers at best and their songs mostly fall pretty flat. They’re on pitch, but with no dynamics or any real flair. Oddly, it’s this way with a LOT of the numbers from the original film.
The songs written for the stage production, on the other hand, “Top of Your Game,” “100 Reasons,” and “Stuck” written by David Abbinanti do what musical theatre songs should do. They move the plot. A few get overused, seeing there are only three, but they work better than the more familiar disco tunes.
The final dance competition is really slick and everyone nails the moves. It looks great and is the payoff you expect from this story.
This production runs through March 19th. Tickets are available from the Drury Lane boxoffice.
Photos by Brett Beiner