By Kimberly Rau
Theatre by the Sea closes its 2019 season with the musical version of the 1977 film hit “Saturday Night Fever,” and, despite some pretty big misses in this interpretation, it’s certainly a fun way to end the summer if you love disco.
If you’re unfamiliar, the plot is mostly lighthearted: A 19-year-old Italian boy from Brooklyn just wants to dance, and prove to his dream girl that he’s more than meets the eye. He’d also like to prove to his parents that he’s just as good as his priest brother. Conveniently, there’s a big dance competition, and what better way to win than by jettisoning the dance partner who has a thing for him and borderline stalking someone new? The writers have attempted to lend some gravitas by reworking heavy plot points like sexual assault, death, and racial tension—unfortunately, none of these are fleshed out very well, so they seem more like afterthoughts than thinking points. There are some new musical numbers as well, which sound like disco but feel like showtunes, and whether that’s fun or cheesy is going to be up to you. The old favorites (Stayin’ Alive, Disco Inferno, More than a Woman, etc.) are all still there to make up for the lyrics that miss the mark.
This cast is full of faces new to Theatre By The Sea: Tony Manero, played by Schyler Conaway, meets the vocal and dance-number expectations in what is certainly a demanding role. Conaway doesn’t try to be John Travolta, and that’s a good thing; instead, he makes Tony his own. There are some moments where his delivery seems a bit unnatural, but given that these are mostly in the scenes that did not age well in the decades since 1977, it’s not inexcusable that certain disparaging epithets don’t roll trippingly from the tongue. As Tony’s counterpoint, Melissa Rapelje steals the show as the driven and talented Stephanie Mangano. Rapelje looks at home in the ‘70s milieu and is a show-stopping good dancer, making her perfect for the role. Sam Brackley and Collier Cobb, also making their TBTS debuts, are well-cast as Bobby and Annette, respectively. The ensemble is talented and those making up the smaller roles are also well worth watching, making up for a less than stellar plot.
Putting the book aside, for a house that usually has a handle on sets and costumes, it was a surprise to see the designer overlook little details like an inexcusably bad wig on the disco hall DJ and characters handling records that were released years after disco died (E.T. soundtrack on vinyl, I’m looking at you). The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, a major set piece and plot device, wobbled to a distracting degree, making you wonder if the bridge was more in danger than the boys climbing all over it.
In short, this is a show that misses the high bar that TBTS usually sets for its productions. Nonetheless, there are enough redeemable moments that it would be worth your while to check it out if you’re looking to end the summer on a nostalgic disco high.
Saturday Night Fever runs through September 8 at Theatre By the Sea, Cards Pond Road, Wakefield. Tickets start at $54 and are available online at www.theatrebythesea.com or by calling 401.782.8587.