Saturday Night Fever – Whatcha doin’ in your break? (Theatre Review)

Saturday Night Fever

Sydney Lyric Theater 1 April – 2 June

You can grab your tickets here

The Saturday Night Fever album is #132 on the Rolling Stones 500 Greatest albums of all time. While this illustrious position has the iconic pop songs to thank, the real power source of The Saturday Night Fever album lies with the Gibb brothers and their astounding gift for disco interpretation. Disco’s black R&B roots are honored and the falsetto, decades ahead of the metrosexual’s appearance, paves the way for the androgyny of the 1980’s. Add to this the bad-boy-turned-good narrative of Tony Manero (who tries to make amends for sexual assault, refuses his white status privilege and vows to self-examine and change his life in the wake of the accidental death of his friend) and you have a remarkably PC narrative disguised by the swarthy swank of the late 70’s disco suit for the Bee Gees to create around. All this modern nice guy stuff gets turned into a film that cleverly offers a PG version for the family and a super dark R rated one that deals with complex subject matter like rape, abortion, drugs, gang violence, plight of the working poor and suicide.

Saturday Night Fever then becomes one of those rare slices of progressive cultural thinking that’s been able to avoid the damaging labels usually associated with anti-political-correctness activists. It is perhaps for this reason that Ryan McBryde has offered us a very PG version for a younger generation for whom PC is no longer an aberration. The original story by Nik Cohn was an official report on the Disco Scene for New York Magazine that was later confessed to have been fabricated, but the screenplay by Norman Wexler felt too dark to be false and Tony Manero has since become the stuff of legend. The entire narrative hinges on the transformation of the male subject away from the constructs of the ‘macho’ man toward a progressive masculinity based on introspection, dignity and self-respect. The transformation aspect is brought front and center in this Ryan McBryde edited edition and the result is a show that one can take the family to – despite the multiple references to abortion (!)

While it is certainly wonderful to have a stage play of such an iconic film and album available for the kids, this new Ryan McBryde edition sees the music lean more towards its pop roots than the R&B that makes disco such a powerhouse sound. Australian adaption director Karen Johnson Mortimer has given us a super vocalist group of Paulini, Natalie Conway, Bobby Fox and Nana Matapule instead of an iconic white male three piece which works well, but distinct changes in iconic sound (such as a cutting brass sound instead of the horns being subsumed in the mix) that moves the tone away from late seventies into an early and mid-eighties aesthetic has the problem of literally, stripping the songs of their Soul aspect. It’s not until the always fabulous Marcia Hines appears on stage that the spirit of disco really returns, and even then, it is due to association rather than sound. None of this is a problem if you are not a super fan, but it seems an odd artistic choice to celebrate disco by rendering it aphasic.

However, if you’re in it for the entertainment aspect, the fun and the nostalgia, there’s plenty to be had. Euan Doidge is a strong Tony and Melanie Hawkins is a witty and glamorous Stephanie. The choreography is beautifully wrought and the dance numbers are super tight; together with a spectacular explosive set, dance, lights and set are easily the highlight of the show. Mark Mitchell and Denise Drysdale put in marvelous (and very funny) video performances that has them tower over Euan Doige as gods. Performance of the star vocalists is spectacular (fantastic to hear Paulini on the stage again) and it all comes together when Marcia Hines turns up. The entire production pulses and throbs around a giant disco ball and dappled disco lights.

Saturday Night Fever on the stage is one of the better Australian rock adaptions I’ve seen in the last seven or eight years of reviewing these shows. It’s high energy and tons of fun, and above all, one for all generations of the family to sing to on the way home.