Monday, January 24, 2005

(D) May 16, 2004 - Saturday Night Fever

THOSE from the disco generation would have survived their mid-life crisis and are possibly experiencing hot flushes by now. But flush or fever, the Broadway and West End hit musical, Saturday Night Fever, currently playing at Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur, sure brings back fond memories of the glorious ‘70s. The curtain opens on Adam-Jon Fiorentino, who plays the lead role of Tony Manero, striking the signature disco pose. He then struts about the stage to Saturday Night Fever’s theme song, Staying Alive, by the Bee Gees.

This stage adaptation of the movie tells of 19-year-old Tony, who works in downtown Brooklyn, selling paint for Fusco’s Paint. He blows all his money at a local disco joint, 2001 Odyssey, where he reigns as king.

Tony is introduced as a narcissist. He stares into his bedroom mirror and is pleased with what he sees – bare-chested, pants unzipped – and takes forever to comb his hair. As he yells, “Would you just watch the hair?”, when his father hits his head, we know that this young man has got his priorities all wrong.

When he proudly tells his parents that he’s gotten a raise, his father puts him down and mocks him. Even his mother blames him when his older brother, “Father Frank Junior”, decides to leave the priesthood. At the disco, Tony gets to escape from his dysfunctional family and the harsh realities of life.

Framing the set at Istana Budaya are the permanent structures of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. In the back are shifting scenes of the close-up and distant views of that bridge, downtown Brooklyn, the neighbourhood basketball court, and the disco floor. The bridge is more than just set design – it signifies the link between reality and dreams.

To be honest, I loved the songs and the dancing, but not the acting. Both the female leads are quite annoying. Renae Berry, as Stephanie Mangano, Tony’s object of desire, is appropriately pretentious but her “super” bimbo character eventually got on my nerves.

Monique Montez, as Annette, who desires Tony, is annoyingly desperate. She proves to be much better at singing than acting with her stunning rendition of If I Can’t Have You. And Darren Tyler, as the whining and whimpering Bobby C., is slightly more convincing in his role; the song Tragedy earns empathy for his character. The mirrors behind him highlight his loneliness as he turns and sees no one but himself in them.

Fiorentino suffers the mammoth task of having to live up to John Travolta – who played Tony in the movie –in every way, from the swagger, the talk, the moves and the attitude. It took five scenes before I stopped comparing him with Travolta, and noticed that he fell into his role quite naturally.

The crowd favourite, “Disco Duck”, was DJ Monty (played by Dale Pengelly), the testosterone-charged God’s gift to women. He represents the classic ‘70s archetype with his bad perm, gold-dusted bell-bottoms and his will-you-just-look-at-me-baby attitude. He is an exhibitionist who “shakes” well and shamelessly displays his infamous bulge. This musical leans on two themes – escapism and learning to grow up. Two things can happen in times of Depression: people jump off bridges (now skyscrapers), or a surge of talent bursts forth in retaliation to the state of repression.

And faster than George “Shorty” Snowden could say, “?they’re flyin’, just like Lindy did!” the disco wave swept through New York. Shorty was the New York swing dancer from the late 1920s who renamed the swing dance, Break-a-way, Lindy Hop – after Charles Augustus Lindbergh, who flew 33 hours across the Atlantic Ocean from America to France in 1927.

Couples started doing what was tagged as the “Disco Swing” in the ‘70s. Most disco dances have strong roots in Swing and Latin American dance forms. Disco Swing would later come to be known as The Hustle (a line dance).

Some of the finest choreography for this musical is staged in 2001 Odyssey, where patrons both line-dance and perform in pairs. Here we witness spectacular “flyin’” scenes, followed by lots of hustling, with beat-to-beat precision. Throughout, the dancers had a jolly good time and it showed on their faces. Seeing them, it is easy to understand why the disco is a place to forget and just have fun.

I loved the scenes in Odyssey not only for the dancing, but also the glitter, the mirror balls, and the whole wild, decadent atmosphere. A mirror hung high on the wall reflects the dancing lights in retro colours, as well as the patrons on the dance floor, making the stage look more crowded than it really is. The image on the mirror looks surreal, like in a dream.

At the 2001 Disco Competition, Tony appears dashing in his signature white suit, “accessorised” by Stephanie, in matching white dress. But the most impressive dance here is performed by the couple from Portugal, in their fiery competition number. Here we get a glimmer of the Latin Hustle that was born even before Gloria Estefan popularised Crossover music.

I enjoyed the easy-going Boogie Shoes five-man dance item and the scene in which Tony and Stephanie first practise dancing in the studio. Part dancing and part choreographing, the scene is sensual in its own way.
Tony finally grows up after Bobby’s tragic death. And with a touching rendition of How Deep is Your Love by Tony and Stephanie, set against a sunset view of the Verrazano Bridge, the show ends.

But you see, disco isn’t meant to be listened to passively. So when the cast encored their disco dance scenes, everybody got up and clapped and danced along. And that was how the night ended.

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