“Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me … I’m stayin’ alive …”
That sentiment – sung by the BeeGees, against an extended shot (if memory serves correctly) of John Travolta’s crotch sashaying down a Brooklyn street in the 1977 film – captured the restlessness and frustration of an earlier generation of young working class white men for whom the traditional perks of masculinity suddenly seemed bafflingly out of reach. Almost half a century later, as is abundantly evident from the comments section to just about any news story covering the Republican primary, those frustrations have simmered over into a boil, making Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s stage version of Saturday Night Fever not only a lively trip down memory lane, but also a curiously relevant piece of social history.
The musical generally follows the central storyline of the original film, using songs from the soundtrack for its live music-and-dance numbers. This actually works: although at times I found myself missing the signature BeeGees falsetto harmonies, the lyrics of the songs – comprehensible as never before – were surprisingly suited to carrying the story line. Looked at from a sociological perspective, it’s a story about the class of men left floundering in the wake of twentieth century gender and race equality movements. The disco dancing Tony (Anthony Crouchelli) styles himself the cock of the yard, but he knows his life is a basically at a dead end. He’s surrounded by working class white guys who are equally lost: his dad has been laid off from his union construction job, his brother has left the priesthood, and his friends are wannabe gangbangers and deadbeats. From the perspective of these Italian Stallions, women aren’t people but necessary annoyances – we see women pestering for attention, nagging, and, most inconvenient, getting accidentally pregnant and cramping men’s freedom. Into this world comes Stephanie (Larissa Overholt), the woman Tony seeks to recruit as his dance partner for the big contest. She’s a slightly older woman who has aspirations to move out of Brooklyn and forge a better, more personally fulfilling life. Stephanie’s got a job in Manhattan where she’s learning to move comfortably in more refined circles, among people who drink tea instead of coffee and who have conversations about books and politics. You could read Stephanie as representative of the hen who may one day take over the barnyard and render the roosters irrelevant, but the script pushes back, insisting we see Stephanie through Tony’s eyes, as a faker and impostor who puts on airs she hasn’t earned. Overholt tries valiantly to make her Stephanie a more well-rounded and sympathetic character, but she’s fighting an uphill battle, especially since the romantic comedy logic of the musical insists on her caving in the end to their inevitable coupledom.
Under Colleen Doyno’s direction, the production is spirited and energetic, with a huge cast that excels in the large group dance numbers (of which there are many). Choreographer Lisa Elliott pulls out the stops on the late seventies dance moves, and if you’re of a certain age you might find yourself nostalgic for one of those chugga chugga line dances (weren’t those fun?). Kim Brown nails some vintage disco looks, especially for the women (remember the wraparound dresses?), and while the set is quite spare, scene designer Jonathan T. Sage finds elegant solutions for the many locales, including an upstage bridge that doubles as a DJ’s perch for the disco scenes. While most of the design successfully captures the look and feel of the era, the decision to wig most of the cast seems a miscalculation, particularly in the case of the two leading players, on whom the wigs are more of a distraction than an enhancement, and who, judging from the publicity photos, seem perfectly capable of sporting a style that matches the era with their own heads of hair.
As Tony, Crouchelli is smooth and confident, and his dancing is precise and suave. Adam Fladd, Logan Farine, Scott Harrison, and Troy Patrick are strong singers and dancers as his Brooklyn buddies, and Jenny Malarkey is touching as the confused Annette, who desperately wants to fit in with Tony and his gang. In addition to the vocally strong Overholt as Stephanie, standout performances from Nicole Uram, as the unfortunately pregnant Pauline, and the powerhouse Amanda Foote as Candy, the disco singer, are highlights of the show, as are the dazzling dance numbers by Justin Lonesome, Melissa Franklin, Jerreme Rodriguez, and Gabriela Selino in the second act dance contest.
Most of the “R” rated material from the movie has been excised, which is a good thing for family-friendliness, but it also means that the seamier aspects of Tony’s social circle are downplayed. In their place, the musical emphasizes his journey of self-discovery. I suppose we’re left to hope that he’ll find some way to escape Brooklyn, but history makes me think that Stephanie’s tea (or is it craft-beer?) drinking friends end up taking over his neighborhood.