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Theatre Review: Short North Stage’s Gritty and Buoyant ‘Saturday Night Fever’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Short North Stage’s Gritty and Buoyant ‘Saturday Night Fever’Short North Stage presents Saturday Night Fever - Photo by Jess Cavender
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John Badham and Robert Stigwood’s 1977 blockbuster film Saturday Night Fever is remembered largely for its soundtrack and a few indelible pop culture images, but it’s always been a darker, more complicated story of Brooklyn strivers terrified of being left behind and the community and catharsis found in a dance club. Short North Stage continues its disco Christmas trend as they present the hit Broadway-by-way-of-London musical adaptation in a production directed by Michael Licata, with all the ecstatic dancing you’d want and with much of its darkness intact.

Nan Knighton’s book (in collaboration with Arlene Phillips, Robert Stigwood and Paul Nicholas) softens the edges of the characters, particularly Tony (Jesse Corbin) and Bobby (Cody Schmid), but keeps their core. Knighton and Licata understand the desire to get out of your own skin, that brings people to the discos over and over, and Licata’s production draws striking contrasts between the world of the dance floor and the world outside, helped by Edward Carignan’s set choices, particularly a side-platform as a terrifying Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and Hailey LaRoe’s moody lighting.

Short North Stage presents Saturday Night Fever – Photo by Jess Cavender

The Bee Gees’ (all songs by them unless stated otherwise) tunes lend themselves to the mouths of these characters: a testament to their innate dramatic tension and narrative heft. The eight-piece band, under Marcus Davis’ direction, have a great feel for the throbbing grooves and the delicate nuance of these songs.

Dancing is at the center of the characters’ lives and the center of the show, and this production does not disappoint. Edward Carignan’s choreography uses the moves of the period in a language that feels visceral and fresh, with a brilliant ensemble to execute. Tony and Stephanie Magano’s (Dionysia Williams) delectation of the Latin Hustle versus the New York Hustle and the Tango Hustle as they effortlessly slip between the varying styles of spins, is one of many perfect winks to the disco heads. Special attention should be paid to the climactic dance to Salsation (a David Shire instrumental from the original) by Jon Yepez’s Cesar and Gabriela Selino’s Maria Huerta, choreographed by Oscar Rodriguez.

This Saturday Night Fever outdid itself in casting its stars. Corbin has an innate read on Tony, baffled and angry at the world, hungry for any praise and hiding that hurt in a complicated, irresistible swagger, and leading iconic numbers like “More than a Woman” and “Boogie Shoes” (KC and the Sunshine Band). He also makes the most of the new David Abbinanti songs like “Top of Your Game.”

Williams brings nuance and life to Stephanie, taking the hardest, most real choices while sending songs like “What Kind of Fool” (originally a Barry Gibb/Barbra Streisand duet) into the stratosphere. Their voices blend beautifully on the David Abbinanti songs original to the show like “100 Reasons.”

Eli Brickey breaks every heart from the Garden Theatre to Brooklyn as the tragic character of Annette, trying to find her way in Brooklyn and guilty only of caring about Tony. She rages through a definitive version of the classic “If I Can’t Have You” (performed by Yvonne Ellman on the original soundtrack) and provides an unflinching look at the human cost of treating people as disposable. 

Short North Stage presents Saturday Night Fever – Photo by Jess Cavender

The other side of that nihilism, as both participant and victim, comes to life in Cody Schmid’s Bobby. Schmid’s struggles with his own conscience about his mistreatment of Pauline (an excellent Holly Atwood the night I reviewed) come to light in a glittering rearrangement of “Jive Talkin,” with Atwood and the women of the ensemble putting Schmid in his place, forcing him to respond. The rest of the Faces, Tyler Whiteman, Luke Bernier, and Matthew Brightbill, provide consistently funny, sharp support work, especially on songs like “Stayin’ Alive” and “Dog-Eat-Dog.”

Patrick Schaefer’s Monty and Tirzah Hawley’s Candy serve as a Greek chorus in the 2001 disco and make the most out of disco classics like “Night Fever,” “You Should be Dancing,” The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” and Kool and the Gang’s “Open Sesame.”

If you have the slightest love for this material, Saturday Night Fever will send you out of the theatre singing along. In one of the more raucous audiences I’ve ever shared a room with, some of the crowd’s infectious enthusiasm had them singing during the show. It’s a hot time in this cold month.

Saturday Night Fever runs through December 31 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, and 3:00 p.m. Sunday, with a special New Year’s Eve performance at 8:00 p.m. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org.

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