Stayin’ alive isn’t always the best thing that can happen to a story. In the case of “Saturday Night Fever,” a quiet death might have been better than being forced to strut its stuff on a Broadway stage.
“Saturday Night Fever” started life as a brilliant piece of journalism by Nik Cohn. It owed its power to the contrast between the hard lives of young people in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and the disco dancing that was their route to ecstatic escape.
The 1977 film that made John Travolta a star washed away some of the grit that gave Cohn’s story its grip. But it kept just enough to create something much more than just another teen movie.
Now, in the musical version, Cohn’s strong brew of fantasy and despair is diluted yet again, leaving a very insipid draught.
Even if every element of the show were right, making a musical of “Saturday Night Fever” would be a tough task.
The Bee Gees’ songs that fueled the movie so powerfully don’t have the kind of dramatic variety that a musical needs. And though the Broadway musical can catch many moods, hard-edged social realism isn’t one of them.
This doesn’t mean that making a good musical of “Saturday Night Fever” is impossible. But it would need far more invention and much better judgment than are on display here.
Phil Edwards’ vocal arrangements do, for the most part, manage to turn the Bee Gees’ funky falsettos into songs that can be sung by a young Broadway cast.
But no one manages to plug them into the dramatic story line. “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “You Should Be Dancin’ ” and the other familiar hits might just as easily be performed in a completely different order to the one in which they appear here.
More seriously, Nan Knighton’s adaptation never manages to make the unhappy home life that drives the hero, Tony Manero, onto the disco floor any more than a backdrop.
The domestic drama is so tightly squeezed that it becomes little more than a stereotype of blue-collar Italian-Americans. Bits of the movie’s plot — like Tony’s brother Frank leaving the priesthood — pop up but go nowhere.
But surely, at the very least, there is something to be salvaged. Tony’s dancing just has to be great.
James Carpinello, who fills the role, is a fine young actor. But, when it comes to dazzling us on the dance floor, he is so far out of his depth that he couldn’t reach the surface with a fireman’s ladder. Casting an actor who can’t dance very well as Tony Manero is like casting an actor who can’t speak English very well as Hamlet.
It’s not just that the show loses one of its main sources of excitement. It’s also that the story makes no sense. If Tony’s movement doesn’t take our breath away, much of the dialogue and all of the plot becomes nonsensical.
Things get particularly absurd in the climactic dance competition that has brought together Tony and his ideal girl, Stephanie (Paige Price). Their performance is so much less exciting than that of the other couples that the desired dramatic tension dissolves in mere puzzlement.
There is nothing much that the rest of the cast can do about this.
Bryan Batt may be splendidly insufferable as the deejay. Orfeh’s magnificent voice may give a surprising depth to a song like “If I Can’t Have You.” Paul Castree may be genuinely touching as the hapless Bobby C. But they can be no more than the icing on a flat, stale cake.
Sadly, then, “Saturday Night Fever” feels more like a slight chill on a wet Tuesday evening.
The 1977 movie "Saturday Night Fever" had flash, excitement, a crackling youthfulness, a pulsing Bee Gees score and John Travolta.
Alas, it also had a stupid plot (Tony Manero leaves Brooklyn for the glories of Manhattan), two ridiculously caricatured women, and some snooze-inducing subplots.
With amazing precision, the 1999 Broadway musical "Saturday Night Fever" jettisons everything exciting in the movie and lovingly preserves everything mediocre.
The producers chose a nice kid, James Carpinello, to imitate Travolta in gesture, stance and intonation. It's a disastrous idea, for we keep referring back to the original, and Carpinello can't compare.
His singing is at best adequate, and his dancing is of the twirl-and-freeze school. He's all pose. At least in "Footloose," a similar and similarly targeted show, the lead doesn't have to ape Kevin Bacon.
The show doesn't even evoke Brooklyn. Robin Wagner's sets look cheap and bare: Some painted signs give us a street; the Verrazano bridge is a few girders; the disco is tawdry and makes its 16 pulsing floor squares visible only in a mirror.
The Bee Gees songs are here but watered down and juiceless, as they have to be sung by the cast instead of just heard on the soundtrack. Choreographer Arlene Phillips has forgotten, if she ever knew, what disco was. She creates solemn, pseudo-ballets for the final (and dully anticlimactic) dance contest.
The tedious plot is preserved intact by adapter Nan Knighton, like a toad in ice.
Tony ditches a whiny girl in a red dress - played by the single-named Orfeh, who uses her fine voice to lament "If I Can't Have You."
He falls for an uppity secretary in a blue dress: Paige Price, keeping all the unfunny bimbo patter of Karen Lynn Gorney. Even the goofball has a song before he falls off the Verrazano bridge.
The show's creators don't get it. We don't care about these characters. We just want to see them wisecrack and dance. An invigorating movie has been turned into a lugubrious downer.
The funniest thing about "Fever" may be its depiction of penniless Brooklyn youngsters easily moving into swank Manhattan apartments. Nowadays, it's Manhattanites desperate to escape impossible rents who are moving onto Tony Manero's block.
The overture is only a warning.
It starts before even a glimpse of scenery, including that model of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge with toy cars scuttling across it, is on view and before there is any evidence of human life. Yet somehow the entire experience of ''Saturday Night Fever: The Musical,'' the dreary new stage adaptation of the 1977 movie, is summed up in those moments before the curtain goes up on the behemoth of a stage at the Minskoff Theater.
There sits the audience, waiting for that shot of comfort that comes from hearing old Top 40 hits associated with salad days of freedom and recklessness, while a drop curtain glows with neon reds, oranges and yellows. A gargantuan silhouette adorns the curtain. It shows the evening's hero, the disco dance king Tony Manero, striking the cocked-hip, raised-arm pose that John Travolta made famous in the posters and album covers for the original movie.
Then the orchestra starts up, and there are fitful eruptions of applause in acknowledgment of era-defining songs by the Bee Gees like ''Stayin' Alive'' and ''More Than a Woman.'' Yet the music sounds distant and tinny, as if it were being played on some souped-up eight-track tape system. Against the odds, there is nothing at all infectious about it; your tapable feet and snapable fingers stay alarmingly still. And there arises an ominous feeling that any nostalgia on offer here is not of the wet, warm, embracing kind but more of the freeze-dried variety. Sorry, but the two and a half hours that follow don't feel a whole lot more animated, and that outsized drawing on the drop curtain may be the only commanding figure to show up on the stage.
Even in dance, and there is a lot of it, the show seems about as lively as a diorama display. Despite its title it has the body temperature of a wax effigy.
''Saturday Night Fever,'' which opened last night, achieves the distinction of turning the two dimensions provided by celluloid into one dimension onstage. The evening, which chronicles the 19-year-old Tony's coming of age in the disco-mad Brooklyn of the late 1970's, passes by as a joyless succession of flat words, sounds and images that at best trigger memories of the vitality of the film that inspired it. For the record, you can rent the original movie, which still seems more hot than quaint, for about a twentieth of the ticket price to the Broadway version.
Personally, I've never followed the logic of the theater marketing theory that if you loved the movie, you'll love the play. The two forms are so different in the ways they manipulate audiences that it seems folly to try to replicate, on a scene-by-scene basis, a cinematic experience, unless you're aiming for post-modern parody.
Nonetheless, it appears that you can't go broke overestimating the American public's appetite for reruns, even in ersatz form. Witness the unlikely success of ''Footloose,'' another adaptation of a dance film with a chart-climbing pop score, so clunky in its transformation that it makes this ''Fever,'' which at least has a plot you can follow, seem like ''My Fair Lady.'' ''Fever'' itself, already a long-running success in London, racked up advance New York sales of $14 million before it even went into previews.
Still, it's hard to imagine any theatergoer finding much enjoyment in this hapless, robotic show. As directed and choreographed by Arlene Phillips, with a book by Nan Knighton that directly borrows the flavorful dialogue (minus the harsher obscenities) from Norman Wexler's original screenplay, ''Saturday Night Fever'' fails largely because it is lazy.
The production's creative team has chosen mostly to imitate, rather than reconceive, the form of the movie. The most salient difference is that the songs by the Bee Gees and other artists, used as background and dance music in the film, are now sung by members of the cast (all sprouting those unfortunate head mikes), led by James Carpinello as Tony. The effect brings to mind a karaoke bar frequented by college students who could still use a few more beers to loosen up.
The musical struggles to cram in as much detail from the plot of the movie as possible, and, boy, is it a tight fit. Gang warfare, loss of religious faith, loss of virginity, a leap to death from the Verrazano: all of these plot elements, while experienced by other characters, serve to feed Tony's evolving disenchantment with his Italian neighborhood in Bay Ridge, where ambitions are small and futures claustrophobically fixed.
Even in the film the plot feels overpacked and strained, but the fluidity of the camera work and the energy of the cross-cutting, along with the automatic evocativeness of location photography, did a lot to disguise this. Onstage the same story unfolds as a mechanical chain of episodes, with so much going on at any given moment that you're not sure where to look. What's worse, the essential, sustained focus on Tony dissolves.
This is partly a question of casting. Granted Mr. Carpinello doesn't have the benefit of those long, loving close-ups that did so much to establish Tony's character (and Mr. Travolta's stardom). The greater problem, though, is that Mr. Carpinello, making his Broadway debut, lacks the effortless charisma that demands attention.
In the movie Mr. Travolta managed to convey both brooding adolescent uncertainty and a testosterone-charged confidence that flourished most fully when he hit the dance floor of the club 2001 Odyssey. There he was, in the words of onlookers, ''a king.''
This is not an epithet that sticks to the self-conscious Mr. Carpinello. He works hard in his dance sequences, but the effort reads in his face, and you sometimes sense him counting off the steps in his head. You may find your eyes straying to see how Tony's pals are managing with the same routines in the background and at least one of them, Sean Palmer as Joey, blows the star off the stage.
Mr. Carpinello, who has a mild, forgettable singing voice, has also been encouraged to do exaggerated variations on Mr. Travolta's line readings, resulting more in cartoon than character. In this sense he's not alone. It's telling that the most buffoonish role, that of a lecherous disk jockey (Bryan Batt), is also the most vibrant. Unlike his narcotized-seeming fellow performers, Mr. Batt gives the appearance of relishing the vulgarity in his role, and he develops a genuine rapport with the audience.
As the two women in Tony's life, Paige Price and Orfeh offer sketchbook portraits whose credibility isn't helped by their generic pop ballads as big emotional solos. Paul Castree, as the most vulnerable of Tony's friends, is assigned the same chore. Ms. Phillips seems to have little idea about staging these numbers beyond letting the actors walk around while waving their arms.
As for the all-important dance sequences, they are mostly devoid of sensuality, despite a lot of hip grinding and pelvic thrusts. It is hard to make disco dancing seem fresh now, with both its songs and steps having been so quickly appropriated by exercise teachers. The routines here only rarely seem like more than an advanced Jane Fonda workout session.
This considerably reduces the pleasures afforded by the show. While Robin Wagner's evocation of the disco feels a tad gimcrack, he has done a dandy job with the big model of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. (Trend spotters: A bridge figures prominently in ''Footloose,'' too.) If you enjoy watching the train sets at F. A. O. Schwarz, you will probably enjoy watching the cars on Mr. Wagner's bridge. This represents only a fraction of the evening, however.
It actually might have been possible to make a seductive stage musical out of ''Saturday Night Fever,'' in which the discotheque would function as the cabaret does in ''Cabaret,'' a prism through which a whole culture is reflected. Ms. Phillips and Ms. Knighton have instead taken the path of least resistance, bluntly following their cinematic prototype as though with tracing paper and Magic Marker. How could the results be other than flat and flimsy?
With that infernally hyped new millennium approaching, people have taken to seeing signs of the apocalypse everywhere. Sometimes they seem to have a point. All these earthquakes are certainly ominous, and the arrival of "Disco Duck" as a musical number in a multimillion-dollar Broadway show surely cannot be a rosy portent. The world may survive the advent of the stage version of "Saturday Night Fever," of course, but the future of the musical theater in the wake of this show's almost assured success -- it already has an advance of more than $20 million -- may be irrevocably altered. Manufactured from equal parts polyester, celluloid and greed, this mindless, heartless and tasteless show is like a TV set playing bad reruns that you can't turn off.
The name of Norman Wexler, screenwriter of the iconic 1977 movie, is prominently and aptly featured on the credits page. In fact the stage adaptation credited to Nan Knighton is virtually a line-by-line transcription of the screenplay -- right down to throwaway bits of business from the movie's opening credits sequence. A few scenes have been combined or condensed, but the stage version reproduces every subplot and every joke of the original (you can probably only enjoy the show at all if you've completely forgotten the movie). This literal-mindedness bespeaks a lack of imagination on the part of this musical's creators that extends to every aspect of the production.
And yet even as they've been slavishly loyal to the film's words, the show's authors, led by director-choreographer Arlene Phillips, have managed to squander its still affecting spirit. The movie had sensitivity and grit. Despite some crudities of structure and theme, it was a sympathetic and honest depiction of lower-middle-class kids struggling against the limits imposed by the culture's strict stratifications and their own uncertain hearts and egos. (Today, 20 years later, a big-budget Hollywood picture wouldn't be caught dead in Bay Ridge, Queens.)
The local disco was the place where Tony Manero, in John Travolta's tender, star-making performance, could escape the disappointments of his present life and his future prospects, and imagine himself into a new nirvana -- the joy and self-respect the dancing gave him he distilled into the courage that might allow him to envision a different future for himself.
All that emotional subtext has evaporated from the material as it has been translated to the stage. To be fair, much of the loss might have been inevitable -- the movie's soul was mostly written in the depths of Travolta's wounded eyes, in the nervously arch nasal whine of Karen Lynn Gorney, playing Tony's ambitious dancing partner Stephanie Mangano. The nuances these actors brought to the roles cannot reach to the balcony of the Minskoff Theater, so it's not entirely the fault of Broadway's Tony and Stephanie, James Carpinello and Paige Price, if their characters translate as coarse facsimiles of the film versions. The problem should have been addressed by the show's authors in the process of re-constructing the movie for the stage.
Unable to capture the film's spirit, the show's creators concentrate on the far easier task of replicating its record-breaking soundtrack. The Bee Gees songs that hopscotched all over the music charts for what seemed at the time like an eternity have been folded into the plot, along with several other disco-era songs and even some non-"SNF" Bee Gees tunes.
But these pop songs weren't created to tell a story or define characters; they were written to pack the dance floor. So the attempts to turn "More Than a Woman," "If I Can't Have You," "Night Fever," "Tragedy" and "How Deep Is Your Love" into expressions of personal angst or elation specific to the characters come across as forced and often inane. Tony, approached on the dance floor by an admirer who compares him to Al Pacino, suddenly has an ego-boosting epiphany -- and sings "Night Fever." Why?
Even the songs that are presented merely as dance extravaganzas at the disco have little distinction or flavor. Phillips' choreography invokes all the standard disco cliches, recombining them in various aerobic permutations in numbers that seem to go on forever and yet are repeated 10 minutes later. (Matthew Bourne's brief disco pastiche in "Swan Lake" was wittier and more exciting than all the dancing in this show combined.) The dancers are lithe and energetic, and the athleticism of Phillips' work as it is performed by the corps is impressive. But the songs, in arrangements that try to marry the synthesized funk of disco with the comprehensibility that Broadway audiences expect (and may regret, in this case), are so devoid of musical power that there's little visceral payoff to all the activity.
The costumes by Andy Edwards and Suzy Benzinger are likewise a predictable lineup of polyester and Qiana, harem pants and headbands, with no defining or unifying schemes or ideas to sharply differentiate the numbers. And this is far from the finest hour of Robin Wagner, the veteran Broadway set designer whose ground-breaking work was seen in shows such as "A Chorus Line" and "Dreamgirls." He seems to be on autopilot here, producing a series of uninspired setpieces that are neither evocative nor gaudily dazzling.
Scenes at a dance studio feature mirrors that clumsily reflect the audience, stagehands in the wings and the TV monitors affixed to the mezzanine displaying the show's conductor in vivid black-and-white. (And by the way, what the hell is he conducting? The drum machines? The program lists a full orchestra, but most of the music sounds canned.)
The performers make little impression in the overwhelmingly synthetic environment of the show. Carpinello has a suitable swagger and cocky sneer; his acting and singing are effective within the limits of the role. But Tony's heart and soul are in his footwork, and Carpinello simply doesn't have the grace and ease of a first-rate dancer. In his solo turns he radiates not hedonistic abandon but intense concentration; when Carpinello's Tony is dancing, he's working harder than he does at his 9-to-5 job selling paint.
Price is a creditable dancer and singer, but she's somewhat overpowered by the competing vocal histrionics of Orfeh, who plays Annette, the girl who goes to humiliating lengths trying to win Tony's attention. Rejected by Tony, Annette sings "If I Can't Have You" in a soulful arrangement to which the singer brings sensational lung power and effective pop technique. For a brief moment, a voice can be heard expressing authentic -- if overblown -- emotion, and the show registers a human pulse.
It's a rare digression in an evening that moves through to its tragic finale with the bland inevitability of an infomercial. Indeed, it almost seems pointless, given the show's London success and its Broadway advance, to assess its merits as a work of theater at all. The show is just a wind-up toy designed to push the audience's nostalgia buttons, an $80 trip down memory lane. The audiences flocking to it probably won't know or care about its deficiencies.
But for musical theater lovers, the show's success is reason to mourn. Its progeny can easily be imagined -- indeed "Mamma Mia!," the Abba musical, is already following in its footsteps as a West End smash. ("Macho Man: The Village People Musical" is not, I fear, out of the question.) How sadly ironic that a show about kids trying desperately to get to Manhattan, the city that gave glorious birth to the Broadway musical, could inspire fans of the genre to move to Bay Ridge in defeat.