It’s possible to have two separate, though in no way contradictory, responses to “Saturday Night Fever,” the stage musical of the movie of the New York magazine story that seems to have been mounted with one purpose in mind – to cash in on ’70s retro chic. The first is to ask whether a seminal film of its day had to be so synthetically reconceived for the stage that it has the dispiriting feel of a Cliff Notes version of material that was hardly deep to begin with. The second question prompted by producer Robert Stigwood’s theater adaptation of his own runaway film hit is rather more primal: Does its Australian leading man, Adam Garcia, ever sweat?
As it happens, you may spend more of the night pondering the latter, inasmuch as director-choreographer Arlene Phillips asks her tireless 24-year-old lead – here cast in John Travolta’s star-making part as 19-year-old disco stud Tony Manero – to swivel his hips more times in one evening than there have been performances of “The Mousetrap.” Whether this show will achieve comparable status – or even a money-earning run of a season or two – depends on tapping the West End public that has kept “Grease” and “Buddy” rocking. Whatever its fate, one thing seems clear: This show needs the critics about as much as a game if (in acting and singing terms) wildly overstretched Garcia needs coaching from Arthur Murray. It doesn’t, and he doesn’t.
The show wastes no time delivering what the audience has come to hear: that Bee Gees disco beat, here buttressed by some of the brothers Gibbs’ subsequent hits (“Tragedy,” written the year after the 1977 film) and at least one new song , “Immortality,” that doesn’t exactly make the claims for longevity that its title might suggest.
No sooner has the overture ceased than Garcia’s Tony appears, flares and all, spotlit in the trademark pose (legs poised to let rip, right arm stretched toward the sky) that fired up a generation. But while the movie told a story of social and sexual yearning and class aspiration, the stage musical is nothing more or less than a blatantly calculated assemblage of hits: Indeed, so pro forma is Tony nominee (for “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) Nan Knighton’s book – Phillips, Stigwood and co-producer Paul Nicholas are credited as collaborators – that the musical feels almost embarrassed by its plot line, as if those involved wished they could junk what little narrative exists and cut directly to the all-stops-out disco finale.
The signposts of the film are in place; what’s missing are any texture and wit, along with the confidence to keep an evening moving in anything more than fits and starts. Paint store employee Tony still abandons Annette (Tara Wilkinson), the local good girl overcome by lust, for Manhattan-bound Stephanie Mangano (Anita Louise Combe), a record producer’s secretary busily exalting her newfound life of two-hour lunch breaks. (What company does she work for?) Back in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, older brother Frankie (John Stacey) forsakes the priesthood, while Tony’s cronies talk only of “makin’ it” – which they do in a climax by the Verrazano Bridge that cheesily updates “West Side Story.”
Tony, in turn, lives only for the disco where his bump and grind rules. He’s a narcissist with heart, a self-promoter whose self-esteem has taken its share of knocks. If he can win the Saturday night championship, he may even get the girl, though it’s important to both the screenplay and the stage show that they be friends first.
If Garcia were another John Travolta, the live musical’s defects would take a back seat to that exhilarating rush that accompanies the birth of a star. But on a stage associated with personalities – the Palladium has long been London’s answer to New York’s pre-Disney Palace – Garcia doesn’t really project one beyond a boyish and indefatigable athleticism that sustains interest in Phillips’ highly drilled dance routines, which otherwise quickly pall, a token – and anachronistic – nod to “Tap Dogs” and “Stomp” notwithstanding. Whereas the best stage dancing (think, say, of “Chicago”) works as an extension of style or character, the high-adrenaline movement on view here is at once frantic and empty, complete with a “Disco Duck” sequence that inadvertently recalls another recent stage musical of a film of exactly the same vintage, “The Goodbye Girl.”
“Saturday Night Fever” was first a film with musical interludes, not a musical as the theater might describe the term, and it’s significant that Travolta in that movie doesn’t sing a note. But the stage version demands that the songs be apportioned to characters at a time appropriate to the story. (“Jive Talkin’ ” is staged as a taunt between Annette and the boys on the bridge.) The result: Garcia has not only to thrust his pelvis for 2 1/2 hours but must sing as well, and it doesn’t help that, as orchestrated by Nigel Wright , virtually none of the numbers sits happily on what would seem to be a fairly limited register.
Still, at least charm sees Garcia some of the way through; Simon Greiff, as the hapless Bobby C, has no such luck with his second-act putative showstopper, “Tragedy,” which introduces a trio of from-the-gut arias of heartache that leave one cold.
Indeed, there’s considerably more brio to Robin Wagner’s sets, the predictably garish nightclub most definitely excluded, than to a show whose theme finds an unexpected parallel in a similarly titled London premiere of late , Stephen Sondheim’s early “Saturday Night,” another teens-and-twentysomethings-in-love take on the Brooklyn-Manhattan divide. (Wagner has a particularly good time finding visual riffs on Manhattan’s verticality.) The set dresser no doubt enjoyed gathering up posters of “Serpico” and others that evoke the heyday of Farrah Fawcett’s hair. But for all its efforts to boogie, “Saturday Night Fever” doesn’t keep the beat. After all, we should be dancin’, and instead one leaves the show vaguely depressed.