After 16 Long Months, “Saturday Night Fever” Finally Opens at Circa ’21
After an unanticipated, unwanted and uncontrollable delay of nearly 16 months, a disco-era sensation is finally stepping out at Circa ‘21 Dinner Playhouse, in the long-awaited debut of “Saturday Night Fever,” a 1998 musical that Broadway World called “a fast and fun night of
musical theater” that’s “brimming with so many ‘wow’ moments.”
This exhilarating musical was 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, and will be presented at the beloved Rock Island venue by a cast of professional talents in previews Wednesday and Thursday, then regular performances July 16 through Sept. 11.
In the lead Travolta role of Tony Manero, Justin Wolfe Smith, 25, is a Los Angeles-based actor
who received his BFA in musical theatre from Nazareth College in Rochester N.Y., and is thrilled to finally step into Tony’s boogie shoes and iconic white suit. The original 16-member cast was all set to open in mid-March 2020, when the Covid pandemic shut the world down.
“There’s nothing like it,” Smith said recently of performing on stage. “When you get something like Covid, it takes away the biggest part of you – not even in a job sense, but in like a wholeness sense. We do this because we love telling stories. We love meeting people, touching people – internally. The best part is knowing that people appreciate your work, that people are happy,
they feel better. Knowing you have a part in making somebody feel better – that’s like the best thing. I just miss doing that.”
Both he and Emily Stys (who plays Tony’s dance partner Stephanie) are making their Circa debuts in “Saturday Night Fever.” Some of Smith’s past credits include Jack the Ripper in a new musical at Busch Gardens Williamsburg (Va.), and Danny Zuko in “Grease” at Blackfriars Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.
He played the Travolta 1978 film role of Danny in “Grease” in 2017, noting Travolta was cast in “Grease” before “Saturday Night Fever,” but the latter film came out first, in 1977. Barry Gibb also wrote the title song for “Grease,” performed by Frankie Valli for the film.
Smith first saw “Fever” in college, and said: “There’s a lot of heart and soul and realness to this. Then watching it in the rehearsal process, you don’t want to recreate the movie, do everything they’re doing. But you want to tie in just enough of it so that it’s familiar to people and they’ll get it. It’s a good reference, but you don’t want it to be a copy.”
“They really did give the show a lot of heart,” Stys said of the stage version. “They gave a lot of characters arcs that they didn’t fully realize in the movie. They took it and really wanted to bring the disco element, but wanted to give you hope at the end and kind of makes you feel good. I think they did a really great job. I grew up, and with my parents I listened to ‘70s and ‘80s music every weekend.”
“I grew up around music, old movie musicals, John Travolta in ‘Grease’ and ‘Saturday Night Fever’ would come up,” she said. “This like ‘70s, ‘80s era, I always felt like I knew the music. I listened to it growing up in my childhood. My parents are thrilled.
A 29-year-old native of Romeo, Mich. (north of Detroit), who has performed from Virginia to Arizona (as well as Disney Cruise Lines), Stys also is thrilled to be back catching a good kind of “Fever,” after enduring a global health crisis.
“Stephanie is such a joy to play and this cast and crew are nothing short of exceptional,” Stys said. “Having this show to look forward to has made the year seem that much brighter. A lot of theaters canceled their productions and didn’t remount them. Circa remounted this and brought us back.”
In the jukebox musical, based on the 1977 film, its book is by Nan Knighton (in collaboration with Arlene Phillips, Paul Nicholas, and Robert Stigwood), and the songs mostly consist of music featured in the film’s
soundtrack (the second top-selling film score of all time, 40 million, behind “The Bodyguard”), which were mostly written and performed by the Bee Gees.
The musical (which ran on Broadway in 1999 for 501 performances) focuses on Tony, an Italian-American Brooklyn youth whose weekend is spent at the local discotheque. There he luxuriates in the admiration of the crowd and a growing relationship with Stephanie Mangano, and can temporarily forget the realities of his life, including a dead-end job in a paint store and his gang of deadbeat friends.
In an effort to make it a family-friendly show, many of the film’s darker elements, including references to racial conflict, drug use, and violence, were eliminated from the plot. With adult challenges and responsibilities threatening an end to his untroubled life, will the disco sensation Tony ever decide to grow up?
“Saturday Night Fever” features the hits “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “You Should Be Dancin’,” “More Than a Woman,” and “How Deep Is Your Love,” as well as songs that were not in the film – like “Nights on Broadway” and numbers written just for the musical.
The film’s soundtrack won a Grammy for Album of the Year and spent a remarkable 120 weeks on Billboard’s album charts. The stage show (albeit without the multicolored square-themed dance floor) takes the existing familiar lyrics and applies them to the storyline, Stys said, with many of the disco hits providing the soundtrack for the disco scenes.
Tony and Stephanie sing in “Stayin’ Alive,” the opening number; he sings some of “More Than a Woman” to her, and “How Deep Is Your Love” they sing as a duet at the end. Stephanie also sings “What Kind of Fool,” which Barry Gibb co-wrote in 1980 as a duet with Barbra Streisand.
Director in Circa debut as well
Making her Circa ‘21 directing debut with “Saturday Night Fever” is Amy McCleary, of Fort Myers, Fla., who heads the production with longtime area favorite, Ron May, serving as the show’s music director. In 2015, she directed and choreographed the national tour of
Stys is very impressed with McCleary, who also did the voluminous choreography for “Saturday Night Fever.”
“So much of the dance is tied into the story, so it’s nice to have one person with a cohesive vision to plot out everything and to know this dance move motivates this, and why we’re doing this,” she said. “She’s amazing; she loves this show and you can tell.”
Stys said McCleary is the first woman she’s worked with to hold both positions. “She’s a superstar and so incredible,” she said. “She has so much trust in us, which is really nice to have a director who trusts you with roles, who trusts you in the show. We all work together really well. We all have very similar visions for what we want; it’s wonderful.”
Initially, the original cast rehearsed 11 days starting March 4, 2020, and after the show was canceled in mid-March, they stayed in the area through June 26, 2020, still being paid by Circa.
“The day that we got in to do it this year was the day we were leaving last year,” Smith recalled.
“It was nice to be housed as well,” Stys said of being put up by the theater last year. “Coming from New York, I was booked a bit before, so I didn’t have an apartment in New York to go back to, or a reason to go back to New York, so it was nice to have the option to stay here. It felt really safe, because it was a group of us – we could run errands together. We kept around each other.”
There were seven of the original cast who stayed, and kept rehearsing the dances on their own, Smith said. All the leads are the same from the original cast. That made it easier to come back to rehearsals this month, Stys said.
“Rehearsals were kind of a breeze,” she said. “We ended up rehearsing at the house because we were under the impression we were gonna start back up again. The professionals we hoped we were, we wanted to make sure we were ready. We were so excited to do the show.”
“We were holding onto this material for so long, that when we came back, it just felt like riding a bike,” Stys said. “It takes you a second, but oh, this is familiar. And doing the scene work was actually so nice, because we’re such good friends, after everything that happened. And the folks in the show have such strong relationships, it just kind of fell into place.”
Smith moved to L.A. during Covid with two friends and started a small film production company. “We just started making some stuff,” he said of some short films and promos. “With the seven of us at the house, we made some short films with the actors here. We’re all creative
and we were all bored. We’re like, I had my camera with me. So we wrote and shot two short movies while we were out here to pass the time, so that was cool.”
Stys ended up moving back to Michigan with her parents, in their small town, and took dance classes. She did substitute teaching at a high school, where she previously worked, before moving to New York. Stys choreographed, assistant directed and did hair and makeup for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” which was performed this past May by six students in masks. “It was a really nice way to stay involved. I love working with students. It was really nice to be involved in theater and see it come back.”
“So many of the families to see their kids and their friends,” she said. “That’s a show with a lot of heart too.”
“It prepped me to come back here and do it myself,” Stys said of Circa. Her last stage performance was in “Chicago” in Virginia, February 2020.
Smith also did his last show in Virginia, Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, doing a Halloween show and then a Scrooge show for the holiday season in 2019. He played Jack the Ripper in a new musical in New York City, in summer 2019, in Manhattan.
In L.A. before coming back to Circa, Smith filmed an online commercial for a website and was in two music videos.
Stys has done dinner theater at Arizona Broadway Theatre, where she was in “An American in Paris” in spring 2019.
“It’s such an interesting experience. We just saw ‘Beehive,’” she said of the last Circa production. “I really enjoy it.”
“I think everyone is looking for a sense of normalcy,” Stys said of audiences returning to shows. “I feel like in this area – going out, seeing a show, escaping from reality for a moment, into an era that is very familiar to a lot of the crowds out here, I think – who wouldn’t want to do that now? When you’ve been stuck inside, to be able to experience that. What a great show to come back to.”
“When we saw ‘Beehive,’ it was packed,” Smith said of the last Circa show.
“People are ready to come back and it’s nice to know that theater is a regular part of many people’s lives,” Stys said. “Because it is our lives.”
“Being so isolated, I was dancing by myself in my house,” Stys said. “The whole point of theater and dance to me, is having a group behind you and with you, and the energy. It’s a community. At the end of the show, we do a big mega-mix and we’re all dancing.”
At a recent run-through, Bootlegger Brad Hauskins’ little daughter was dancing with them and clapping, and Stys said she was on cloud nine seeing that. “This is why we do this,” she said. “Just having a whole group of people dancing, singing together, seeing people in the audience enjoying themselves. That’s why we’re here.”
More debuts and Circa veterans
For the show, Jennifer Barnaba, Tim Canali, Natalie Carrera, Michael Ferlita, Derik Lawson, Kiera Lynn, Samuel Colina and Darren Velárdez also make their first appearances on the Circa ‘21 stage. The rest of the “Fever” ensemble is completed by venue veterans: Ashley and Bobby Becher (“Holiday Inn”), Jacob Clanton (“Elf: The Musical”), Brad Hauskins (“The Church Basement Ladies in You Smell Barn”), Caitie L. Moss (“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”), Anna Marie Myatt (“A Christmas Story: The Musical”), Savannah Bay Strandin (“Beehive: The ‘60s Musical”) and Tristan Tapscott (“Shear Madness”).
“Saturday Night Fever” will be performed 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.