Saturday Night Fever

Robert Stigwood with Bill Oakes based on the story by Nik Cohn
Bill Kenwright by special arrangement with The Robert Stigwood Organisation
Palace Theatre, Manchester
to

The route of Saturday Night Fever onto the stage has not been straightforward. It began life as an article by Nik Cohn examining how macho men, emasculated by dead-end jobs, were regaining and redefining their masculinity by strutting their stuff on the dance floor. The 1970s movie version was, initially, considered so abrasive it was rated for adults only. But then the popularity of the star and of the soundtrack attracted a wider, younger audience and resulted in a re-cut family orientated version. Now director Bill Kenwright sets out to merge elements from each of the various past versions into the touring stage show currently playing at the Palace in Manchester.

During the recession of the 1970s, Tony Manero (Richard Winsor) is stuck in an unfulfilling retail job. Tony’s outward display of arrogance conceals an inferiority complex—although confident he is the best dancer in his neighbourhood, he is afraid to progress to a more demanding environment. Tony’s new dance partner Stephanie Mangano (Kate Parr), on the other hand, is aspirational and, with her sights set on the big city, seems to have little interest in Tony other than his dance skills.

Director Bill Kenwright is so eager to please fans of the film and soundtrack he uses Edward Handoll, Alastair Hill and Matt Faull as on-stage avatars of The Bee Gees with their vocals serving as a ‘Greek Chorus’. This device works marvellously in the scenes set in the disco where the vocals serve as backing to the dancing. It does, however, create some confusion when the story moves off the dance floor. Musicals are a genre where characters are defined by song but in Saturday Night Fever the vocals are dominated by the trio to such an extent that on the rare occasion when another character gets to sing a solo it feels out of place.

Gary McCann’s designs for the disco bring authenticity to what must be the only dance club without a single gay customer. The massive mirrored walls not only look convincing, they serve to reflect the multi-coloured floor design and so ensure the audience is aware of one of the iconic features of the film.

The formula for touring musicals requires the presence of a TV star to attract audiences and a strong ensemble to compensate for any vocal or dance shortcomings of the star. While Richard Winsor has TV credits, he has also worked with Matthew Bourne so for once the lead dancer can show the ensemble a thing or two. It makes all the difference in the world with Winsor delivering an anguished and technically complex final solo dance.

Winsor has tremendous physical presence, but what stands out is not his macho strut or even the gratuitous shirtless scene but his constant sneer. Tony Manero is supposed to be motivated by desperation born out of poverty, but Winsor suggests someone so scared of intimacy he keeps everyone at a distance and expresses his emotions only by dancing, which brings power to his solo that ends the first act.

Concentrating on replicating the movie soundtrack results in much of the social commentary and supporting characters in the story being overlooked; yet, although the attempt to please as many people as possible results in a disjointed production, Saturday Night Fever is still a very tasty one.

David Cunningham