CHICAGO — As it hits the road here this week for a 40-city, 18-month tour, “Saturday Night Fever” is offering presenters both blessings and baggage along with the signature piece of disco beefcake in a white suit.
The blessing is a bankable title with a stellar national recognition factor and a slew of familiar retro disco ditties — a full 12 of which once made the top 10.
The baggage is the show’s flop Broadway stand, where it attracted some of the nastiest reviews in recent memory and also failed to pack in the crowds the producers had expected after a hit London premiere. The tuner’s feeble Broadway run may have had something to do with the road show’s inability to land a star willing to headline the tour.
By now, there’s a clear model for the post-Broadway road rehab of musicals with plenty of cash to recoup. And it’s a simple recipe: Fix the problems as much as possible, and hope that hinterland ticketbuyers never paid attention to what those snippy Gotham crix had to say.
“I’m willing to bet,” says the Boston-based “Fever” producer Jon Platt, “that the people who will be buying tickets to this show did not read the reviews in New York.”
And even if they did, Platt and director-choreographer Arlene Phillips can say that this is a whole new production — based on the model of the current U.K. tour that began in Edinburgh in November and has been attracting better reviews than did the London and New York originals.
Nan Knighton’s book has been retooled for family auds. Profanity — and faux profundity — have both been excised. The show has been shortened and simplified. Any social realism has been nixed in favor offering a good time in the “Mamma Mia” mold.
“We have great songs and killer dance,” Platt says, talking like a software guy with killer apps. “We’ve now decided to concentrate on the two things we do best.”
Headliners are Richard Blake, Jeanine Meyers and Aileen Quinn (who was once Annie). Much of the cast did the show — or understudied — on Broadway.
Phillips argues that many of the show’s problems in New York flowed from people’s lousy memories. Say the title of the movie, she argues, and people think dance and white suit. But “Fever” was in fact a hard-edged movie that contained some elements that seem racist and sexist by today’s standards. The stage production erred, the argument goes, in trying to meld the picture’s gritty tone with stage glitz.
“We tried to keep the hard edges of the story,” Phillips says. “And what the audience actually wanted was to have a good time.”
In theory at least, that’s now what will be on offer — period.
“One will be able to throw off one’s troubles,” Phillips says, “and dance one’s heart away.”
“The show will do fine,” says Detroit booker Al Lichtenstein, “as long as it goes into markets under the cover of subscription, so to speak, and does not overplay.”
Platt, a savvy booker, has thus decided to keep the dances fairly short. With a roster of bookings between one and six weeks, the show will kick off with a relatively meager 3-1/2 weeks in Chicago and will also be seen in San Francisco, Toronto, Boston, Washington, Los Angeles and Detroit, among other markets.
The depth of love will thus be tested, but not too deep.
“People will buy tickets for this title upfront,” Lichtenstein says. “The reviews will only matter in half a dozen cities anyway.”
In Chicago, at least, the show will have a tough act to follow. “Saturday Night Fever” is the first Broadway attraction seen in Chicago since the much-loved “The Producers.” And who would want to follow that movie-to-stage smash into town?