By Susan Risoli
Theatre Three’s upcoming musical production of “Saturday Night Fever” has all the irresistible energy of the 1977 film, while it turns up the story and character development. Actor Bobby Peterson of Hampton Bays will tackle the role of Tony Manero, a Brooklyn kid who knows we should be dancin’ — and reaching for a dream. Sitting in the theater’s intimate Griswold’s Café during off-hours, 29-year-old Peterson talked about the show and its lasting appeal.
Why should people come to this show?
This production has so much to offer. It has dance. It’s going to be fun and uplifting. It has enticing and entertaining characters. And people will witness a very beautiful story. In the movie, I think, the story gets lost.
How does this version handle the differences between ‘Saturday Night Fever’ as a movie versus the musical?
How do people deal with it when they read the Lord of The Rings books, versus when they see the movies? A book can do things differently than what a movie can do or what a stage play can do. I just try to look at a story that I’m trying to convey. The first thing I look for is, is this version complete, and continuous, and succinct? Does it have well-written dialogue? Does it have good compositions? A lot of that comes from Jeff [Sanzel, Theatre Three executive artistic director], as the director of the show. As an actor and performer, my job is to convey a director’s vision and an author’s vision, to the best of my ability. I think all actors should be humble in that concept. You’re here to act as an instrument to convey the thoughts and concepts of another person, as best you can. I try to put my own work in technique, in the type of voice and the different inflections I’m going to use, in the dancing and singing.
Is it intimidating to play a role that people are so familiar with?
It is an iconic role. I want to put my own spin on it, but I think a lot of people are going to come to the musical having their own ideas about what John Travolta brought to this role. When I talk to people about it, they talk about the impact of Travolta on the dance floor.
What’s the most fun thing for you, about being in the show?
This is one of those classic triple-threat roles and it’s a challenge to me because every step of the way, there is every facet of what musical theatre is. There’s a lot of dancing. And the script is 130 pages long. It’s a huge memory challenge because there are so many little moments that weave in and out of the dancing. The cast is amazing too. I must say, everyone who Jeff has cast is really great for their roles.
What’s the least fun thing?
Probably the drive here from [home in] Hampton Bays!
Tony Manero has so much swagger. How do you convey the vulnerable part of his personality?
An actor can only be as good as the writer. I feel very supported by the writers, and by the piece itself. It has set up and designed scenes for the actors to convey deeper parts, and different sides, of the characters. This rendition has a scene where after Tony wins a dance contest, he has a whole two pages speaking to Stephanie about how it’s not right that he won, because there’s a couple who danced better than him. That’s his epiphany.
Will the audience have fun?
Yes, there’s plenty of that. When numbers like “Stayin’ Alive” and “Disco Inferno” come on, it is full-cast dancing. The choreographer Whitney Stone has done an amazing job making use of the space that we have. She’s designed her choreography very well. And she’s included some of those dance moves that people are going to want to see.
How did you prepare for this role?
For a role this size, I’ll really micromanage myself. I get home as early as I can, and spend the whole next day focusing on making sure that I’ll be good for the next show. Sometimes after rehearsals, I’ll go to the gym because it is a physically taxing role. There’s a lot of lifts with partners. There’s a strong incentive to really muscle-build, to make sure one is strong enough and fit enough to perform. Mentally, I’m always thinking about the script. I’m always reading through lines in my head. And I grew up as a pianist, so I play the accompaniments myself and sing along with them.
Promotional materials for this production say that it features Tony as ‘humble paint store clerk by day, dance king by night.’ Do you think everyone has that duality inside of them?
No, I don’t. Sometimes what people yearn for is a simple life. I don’t think it’s necessarily everybody’s struggle. I don’t think it can be, for the same reason that there can’t be too many cooks in the kitchen. Sometimes we need people to be comfortable in what they do and what they are, to bring balance to everything.
In the sequel to the film, Tony finds success as a professional dancer. But not everyone can succeed so completely, or on that level. Should we still try?
People can find contentment that they did try. But never trying can eat away at your soul forever. If people feel a calling within them, they’re going to be much better off doing something about that.
What else would you like our readers to know about this show?
I’m very excited for people to come and see it, and then to see what their reaction will be. I don’t think people are going to get completely what they’re expecting and I’m very excited to see how people are going to handle that and how they’re going to react.
“Saturday Night Fever” will run from May 20 through June 24 on the Main Stage at Theatre Three, 412 E. Main St., Port Jefferson. Tickets for adults $35; seniors and students $28; children ages 5 to 12 $20. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.theatrethree.com or call 631-928-9100.