REVIEW: Amazing Vocals and Dance in Circa ’21’s “Saturday Night Fever” Lift Light Over Darkness
The stage musical “Saturday Night Fever” has a serious split personality.
Adapted from the Oscar-nominated 1977 movie smash that catapulted the Bee Gees to international fame and made a household name of
star John Travolta, the jukebox musical that makes its stunning area premiere at Circa ’21 wants to be a carefree disco dance party. But behind the sparkly glitter, multi-colored lights and comfortably familiar hits lies a dark, depressing story – full of anguish, conflict and dashed dreams.
In a way, it’s the opposite vibe of “Mamma Mia!” (another show built on 1970s favorites, by supergroup ABBA) at Music Guild, which closes this weekend and is almost relentlessly sunny, fun and frolicsome. Though the original movie of “SNF” is even more dark and depressing, the
blockbuster soundtrack evokes a breezy good time of uptempo, infectious numbers for you to dance all worries away. In the urgent, gritty stage show, the worries remain front and center – and some of those cheery, jaunty numbers are reflected in often somber, ominous ways.
That happens straight from the start of Circa’s stellar “Fever” – directed and choreographed with sharp, surging emotion and perfect panache by Amy McCleary. While the film opens with the confident Travolta doing his Brooklyn strut down the street to the immortal “Stayin’ Alive” (with the emphasis on “I’m a dancin’ man and I just can’t lose”), the musical starts with the serious woes in ’77 New York and leading man Justin Wolfe Smith (as the tormented Tony) leading the ensemble in the
same song, but with the focus on the fury and pain – “Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me!”
The musical (which ran on Broadway in 1999 for 501 performances) centers on Tony, an Italian-American Brooklyn 19-year-old whose Saturday nights are spent at the local discotheque. There he luxuriates in the admiration of the crowd and a growing relationship with Stephanie Mangano (though it’s often love-hate and tempestuous), and can temporarily forget the realities of his life, including a dead-end job in a paint store and his gang of deadbeat, hoodlum friends.
You’d think Tony would find warmth and support at his Bay Ridge home, but that’s also a powder keg, as he’s got a difficult time dealing with his angry father, played by Brad Hauskins. Over the course of the story, Tony is slapped by both parents (Mom is played by Ashley Becher).
While the story – and what I thought were superfluous scenes among the guys – drags at times, adding to the show’s three-hour run time, the outstanding dancing and vocals are mesmerizing and jaw-dropping throughout. I really liked how the well-known hits were interspersed with
new songs penned for the musical, like Stephanie and Tony’s sweet “100 Reasons,” the boys’ bitter, cynical “Dog Eat Dog” (which features a lyric reference to “Stayin’ Alive”) and “Stuck” in Act II, a powerful double duet among Tony, Stephanie (Emily Stys) and the secondary couple Bobby (Jacob Clanton) and Pauline (Jennifer Barnaba).
Several of the big hits in SNF are viewed through a whole new lens – like “Jive Talkin’,” “If I Can’t Have You,” “Nights on Broadway,” and “What Kind of Fool.”
Caitie L. Moss makes a tremendous impression as the jealous firecracker Annette, who unsuccessfully pines after Tony, and her “If I Can’t Have You” turns it into a slow-burning, dramatic, yearning and pleading wail, building in intensity to screaming in sorrow. The super
strong ensemble at the top of Act II transforms the former disco anthem “Nights on Broadway” into a slinky, mysterious, beautifully alluring number.
Like the stylish, expertly controlled, coiled Smith as Tony, Stys as the polished, upper-crust Stephanie has a bold, poised presence and their opposites-attract banter is a consistent joy to behold, as is their smooth, graceful pairs dancing. In Act II, Stys also reveals her character’s depth of agony and tenderness in “What Kind of Fool,” bringing it to a burning boil I never
heard in the original single.
Speaking of burning, real-life couple Savannah Bay Strandin and Tristan Tapscott heat up the music, wonderfully serving as kind of disco hosts for the dance scenes, excelling in leading “Disco Inferno,” “Night Fever,” “You Should Be Dancing,” and “More Than a Woman.” The ensemble dance numbers are astonishingly precise and performed with passion.
Darren Velardez and Jacob Clanton are sympathetic and somewhat tragic as Tony’s brother Frank Jr. and Bobby, respectively. The story’s climactic, tense scene on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge ends with an accidental death (the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy” could have worked here), and after a brief “Dog Eat Dog” reprise,
it’s hard to believe the gang could go back so quickly to celebrate in the disco for “Open Sesame.”
While it’s great to hear the lovely “How Deep Is Your Love” as the closing duet between the leads, the happy ending feels sudden and forced. Special mention must be made of Samuel Colina, who came to Circa as Cesar (the Puerto Rican rival for the big dance contest) just two days before the Wednesday night first public preview, replacing an original cast member who injured his ankle.
Colina is a spectacular, disciplined dancer, and to think how he learned all the moves so fast is mind-boggling. He and his terrific partner in the contest, Natalie Carrera, are fiery and fantastically limber. Tapscott (who seems to specialize in nerdy roles) also shines briefly as the awkward, gawky dance studio owner – the opposite of his cool, black-wigged, shades-sporting Monty.
Also like “Mamma Mia!”, here the show’s bows are followed by a fun, high-energy reprise of a few of the biggest hits, after a new glittering costume change, where everyone can give their boogie shoes a workout. And it’s another Q-C show that should not be missed.
“Saturday Night Fever” will be performed through Sept. 11, on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 7:45 p.m., Sundays at 5:45 p.m., and Wednesday matinées at 1:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $56.55 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $49.73 for the matinées, with reduced prices for students, seniors and groups of 12 or more also available for all performances.
Plated dinners will be served in lieu of the traditional buffet meals, and reservations are available through the Circa ‘21 box office, at 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island. For reservations, call 309-786-7733, ext. 2, and visit Circa21.com for more information.