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.