If the 1977 John Badham/John Travolta film “Saturday Night Fever” were a museum, then the touring Broadway musical version would be the gift shop, filled with cheap replicas and overpriced tchotchkes. This is a cheesy, flimsy refrigerator magnet of a musical, loud and obnoxious, useful only for the memories it provokes, and ultimately disposable.
It would be an easy excuse to say that the conversion of a live-action film to theater is itself an iffy task, except that “The Producers” and “The Full Monty” just cornered the Tony nominations, showing in effect how it can be done without too much cheapening of the original. Of course, “Saturday Night Fever” is a different animal entirely, not just an amusing hit but a mainstream phenomenon that emblematized an era and reached cult status, continuing in various locales as a midnight movie; it’s an icon of the disco decade.
It’s this very status that makes the musical version both an inevitable effort and a disappointment. The film, as you’ll recall, took us into the life of a working-class Italian kid who cared mostly about his hair and his dancing moves, who hung out with his buddies in a Brooklyn discotheque and had to choose a dance partner for his local competition. Sure, it was a seedy film, but it was genuine. That kid, Tony Manero, was vulnerable and easy to root for. In the tacky musical version, there’s no real rooting because there’s no real character, just an action-figure Tony — wind him up and he dances or spouts buffoonish Travolta imitations.
It’s not a criticism of Richard H. Blake, who plays Tony here. Blake’s a capable singer and a fine dancer, with well-oiled hips and a sturdy coiffure. He accomplishes what’s demanded of him by Nan Knighton’s frail stage adaptation and Arlene Phillips derivative direction and line-dance choreography.
No question, the best parts of this show come when the ensemble is dancing to those Bee Gee beats, kicking legs, twirling arms and pointing fingers.
The famous songs that became the best-selling soundtrack are mostly sung onstage here, as if they were Broadway duets or soliloquy anthems, which they’re not. In the context of the story, some of these songs don’t even make sense when they’re voiced by the characters; they work better when they’re just sung from offstage.
And everything is miked to such a degree that when the sound system failed a couple of times on opening night, the audience was shown just how much this show relied on amplification for its forcefulness.
There’s a lot of dancing in this show, which makes sense, but it does take away from the ability to build to a dancing climax. Phillips compensates for this by saving the most elaborate choreography for the competition, where two sets of dancers (Aubrey Smith and Stacey Martin, Michael Balderrama and Natalie Willes) outshine Tony and Stephanie (Jeanine Meyers) with high-kicking splits and garish lifts, although the lead couple does manage to make their dance meaningfully smooth.
Of the other performers, two stand out for their singing: Aileen Quinn — now grown up after playing the title character in the 1982 film version of “Annie” — and Jim Ambler, who sings the song “Tragedy” with genuine passion, although he also stalks the rest of the show with unpleasant jitteriness as Bobby C. He seems ready to jump off the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from the beginning.
Speaking of that bridge, Robin Wagner’s set design is quite the mystery, representing the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn with backdrops painted with signs advertising businesses such as … H&R Block. Huh? And the bridge in this touring edition is so silly it’s kind of charming, with blinking lights behind a wrinkled scrim representing cars in the distance. Reduced in scale, it would make a great magnet for your fridge.