By Susan Risoli
There’s no reason why Theatre Three’s musical version of “Saturday Night Fever” can’t stand on its own, despite starting life as a famous film that defined an era. Audiences who grew up knowing John Travolta as Tony Manero should have open minds, right? Even when the opening night crowd includes one theater patron reenacting the “he hits my hair” scene … and a lady reminiscing about falling off her platform shoes … and a couple boogie-ing down the aisle to take their seats.
Fortunately for all, those memories didn’t get in the way during the show’s opening performance last Saturday night. The cast, crew and musicians of this version of “Saturday Night Fever” make it their own. We realize there will be subtlety at work here when the performance begins and we are told it’s July 1977, a sweltering summer when even Con Ed can’t take the heat. Then, when the cast takes the stage, they manage to look wilted and pent-up at the same time.
There is a sweetness in the characters as this cast brings them to life, and that’s a good thing. Nobody would dare say John Travolta, Donna Pescow and their colleagues weren’t great in the movie. But they looked older, wiser, already cynical and too tough to convey the fear behind their bravado. Under the direction of Jeffrey Sanzel, the Brooklyn residents on Theatre Three’s stage convince us that these people are kids, still in adolescence or barely out of it. They don’t know which way to turn — they’re lost and mixed-up. When the cast sings, “Life going nowhere, somebody help me,” we want to.
Bobby Peterson as Tony Manero delivers the physicality the role demands. This Tony can strut! But beyond Tony’s frustration, Peterson shows us his confusion, and that serves the story well. Maybe the neighborhood isn’t really the center of the universe? Maybe women can do things reserved for men, and vice versa? Peterson lets us hear the wheels turning in Tony’s head.
When Tony meets his match in local-girl-made-good Stephanie Mangano, Rachel Greenblatt brings a different shading to the role. Stephanie’s upward mobility seems less grasping here, her ambition less brittle. She’s more like a real person, biting off more than she can chew and dealing with it. Greenblatt too brings the physicality her character needs, and with it a simplicity and economy of movement. With cool confidence, she ties a pretty scarf around her waist, and instantly her sweaty dance clothes become a chic ensemble. We understand why Tony chases her.
And then there’s Annette, played by Beth Whitford. As with all the actors, the youthful innocence of her interpretation of Annette makes the character more compelling. If anyone is trapped by the labels society slaps on you, it’s Annette. Nice girl? Whore? Young woman who makes her own rules? She doesn’t even know that other people don’t have the right to define her. We don’t know if she’ll end up victim or victor, but Whitford has us debating it long after the curtain comes down.
Surprisingly, this production is funny. Yes, the film had its comedic moments, but everything else was so heavy we didn’t laugh long. Here the comedy is part of the character’s daily lives. Tony and his friends are kids, after all, and sometimes kids act goofy. Also displaying skillful comedic timing are Jeff Pangburn as Frank Sr., Debbie D’Amore as Tony’s mother, and Steven Incarnato as Father Frank Jr. And do you have to be Italian to appreciate the show’s amusing cultural references? No, but it’s a sly treat if you are.
And oh, the dancing, the costumes and the sets! Somehow we believe that the stage is a cavernous disco. When the full cast dances, it’s great fun to watch them. Remember that couple who take on Tony and Stephanie in the big dance contest? Their Latin dance routine is performed by Nicole Bianco and Alex Esquivel. Wow, just wow—control, passion and flow—something to see. Kudos to choreographer Whitney Stone, costume and wig designer Ronald Green III and scenic designer Randall Parsons for a job well done.
With musical direction by Jeffrey Hoffman, all of the songs are wonderful. Some are the classic 1970s tunes we already know from the Bee Gees — “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “Jive Talking,” “You Should Be Dancing,” and “How Deep is Your Love” — sung here as part of the developing story. The actors do a good job of bringing fresh meaning to old friends. There are new songs too, and they work well.
Sometimes the characters in Theatre Three’s “Saturday Night Fever” are content. Sometimes they explode. Sometimes they don’t know what comes next, and neither do we. But they are well worth hanging out with.
Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present ‘Saturday Night Fever’ through June 24. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 to 12. Children under 5 are not permitted. Contains adult subject matter and language. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.