Review: “Saturday Night Fever” at Westchester Broadway Theatre

John P. McCarthy

  • New York Critic

Elmsford, NY – Disco music pulsates. Whether or not you find the sensation pleasant, a thrusting beat is essential to the genre, which prizes dance-ability above all else. The genius of The Bee Gees’ score for the 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever” is how it added catchy melodies, lush instrumentals and yearning lyrics to the thumping electricity at the heart of disco. 

Unfortunately, Westchester Broadway Theatre’s new production of the musical based on the film is rhythmically challenged. And the problem isn’t limited to the musical performances. The choreography and overall staging of the show also fail to stimulate.  

To be fair, many of the chart-topping songs the Bee Gees wrote are more lyrical and less savagely paced than the typical disco ditty. There’s lots of Soul, Funk, and Rhythm & Blues in the music. Yet the last thing you should come away feeling is that you’ve sat through an overlong, low-energy piece. To use drug analogies relevant to the era and milieu, this “Saturday Night Fever” has popped too many Quaaludes and not enough “Black Beauties”. Maybe snorting the theatrical equivalent of “blow” would have resulted in more dynamism and fun.  

One culprit is WBT’s sound system. The music generated by the off-stage orchestra frequently sounds as though it’s coming from an underpowered boom box. As for the band’s playing, the tempo on the fast numbers is off—too slow by several beats. The result: “Disco Inferno” is less than incendiary, “Night Fever” generates little heat, and “Jive Talkin’” lacks jive. 

Other dimensions of the production are similarly stilted. Director and choreographer Richard Stafford quickly exhausts his repertoire of gymnastic moves for the pure disco numbers. Tony Manero (Jacob Tischler) punches and jabs so often while shaking his booty you might think he’s training for a prizefight or working toward his black belt in karate. That said, the choreography for certain numbers, including some interstitial dancing, has an authentically psychedelic, slo-mo quality. 

Too often there’s dead air during what should be a snappy, toe-tapping show. Scene changes aren’t crisp and the inconsistent blocking, with bodies unevenly distributed around the stage, suggests a larger troupe could lend some dynamism. The book is partly responsible for the fractured pacing. It features an episodic plot with numerous short scenes that are a challenge for any company to piece together fluently. Occasionally inane dialogue, a subplot that doesn’t scan, and a generally glum mood don’t help the cause. 

The mostly Italian-American residents of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in 1977 are a depressed lot. The economy stinks and an influx of other ethnic groups into the area has them feeling under siege; they’re economically and social downtrodden. But for nineteen-year-old Tony and his cohorts, sweaty nights gyrating inside their local disco, 2001 Odyssey, provide a much-needed outlet. Strutting his stuff under the lights empowers Tony. He can vent his frustrations, pick up chicks, and possibly earn his ticket out of the neighborhood at the same time. Yet if he’s to achieve any of these goals, both the music and movement have to be alluringly animalistic—and never a drag. 

The show’s intended effects are further impeded by the fact Tony, who isn’t a very likeable guy, doesn’t redeem himself by dazzling on the dance floor. When delivering his lines, Tischler—who has a pleasant singing voice—sounds as though he may be trying to mimic Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon.” That’s better than leaving the impression you’re trying to imitate John Travolta, whose onscreen magnetism and hoofing talents would be difficult for any performer to match. 

The production does have its moments, and even excels during several of the quieter solos and duets. Female leads Alexandra Matteo, Gianna Yanelli, and Audrey Tesserot movingly perform their songs. As Monty and Candy, 2001 Odyssey’s in-house DJ and chanteuse, Pat McRoberts and Michelle Dawson bring the right amount of camp sensibility to their numbers. Their rendition of “More Than a Woman” is arguably the best in the show—and certainly sounds most like the original. And despite their overly languid tempos, I still enjoyed some of the funky misfires, like Candy’s version of “Nights on Broadway” at the top of the second act. Others will find them unbearably cheesy, as my companion did. But if you don’t get your expected servings of cheese in the purely disco numbers, you’ve got to find them somewhere, right?  

WBT’s designers nail the period fashions (bell bottoms, flared collars, platform shoes, etc.), the club lighting (complete with rotating disco ball), and the set, which is dominated by a well-used representation of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Alas, these technical contributions—and the efforts of a solid if not superlative cast—don’t inject enough vitality into a show that ought to jolt audience members awake and, through dance, provide a brief escape from the ho-hum static of everyday life. “Burn, Baby, burn.” 

Westchester Broadway Theatre’s production of “Saturday Night Fever” runs through January 29, 2017 at One Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY.