Walnut Street Theatre presents ‘Saturday Night Fever’

Night fever: Do they know how to show it?

Here's a great show-biz moment: During intermission at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Saturday Night Fever I discovered that Paige Price, who was sitting behind me (she’s the new artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company), was the original Stephanie, star of the Broadway production of Saturday Night Fever in 1999. When urged, she gave us the signature move — arm pointing diagonally up — and, without getting up from her chair, she instantly captured all the fun of disco.

Alexandra Matteo and Jacob Tischler doing that disco thing. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

The show onstage managed to do this only some of the time. 

Same old song and dance

Its thin plot follows guys and girls in a Brooklyn neighborhood, stuck in dead-end jobs (if they’re employed at all) and dead-end romances. Tony (the unsmiling Jacob Tischler) is the natural leader of the pack and a great dancer. His sometime-girlfriend Annette (Nicole Colon) soon gets replaced by Stephanie (Alexandra Matteo). She, like Tony, is also a great dancer with ambition, and they decide to enter a contest at the local club where Monty (Ben Dibble in a hilarious ‘70s getup) deejays. 

A few subplots flutter around the Tony/Stephanie center, about Tony’s excitable family (how come Italian stereotypes are still allowed to be funny?), a pregnant girlfriend, and a violent gang skirmish, but they are given only the barest development.

Mostly, the show consists of spectacular standalone dance numbers and unspectacular standalone song solos, and despite the high energy brought to it all, the format basically remains static and repetitious. If you’re looking for that famous strut, you’ll need to rent the 1977 movie —Travolta does it like nobody else. Ditto the Bee Gees singing their own songs, like “Stayin’ Alive,” “You Should Be Dancing,” and “More Than a Woman.” 

Directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford, the Walnut Street Theatre’s production features splashy costumes (designed Michael Bottari and Ronald Case) that closely replicate those in the film. The set (designed by Peter Barbieri) quick-sketches the show’s many locales minimally and economically, from the bright lights of the disco club to the drab family dining room to that great early scene in Tony’s bedroom where, under the requisite crucifix, he practices his sexy dance moves in the mirror. The finale brings the whole cast on stage and the whole audience to its feet, just as a finale should.

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