By Emily Jennings for The Free Lance-Star
The movie “Saturday Night Fever” premiered 40 years ago in December 1977. John Travolta’s opening strut down a Brooklyn street to “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees is among the most familiar scenes in movie history.
Representing all the flash and thrust of the disco era, the film was an instant hit. For the next three decades it was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time. Travolta became a megastar and disco, which was in decline at the time, suddenly enjoyed mainstream obsession. Luminous white suits and platform shoes became a fashion passion.
Riverside Center for the Performing Arts revives all that energy in an exciting live production of “Saturday Night Fever—The Musical” onstage now through May 7.
“We’ve assembled an outstanding cast and crew for this production,” said Patrick A’Hearn, producing artistic director. “People will be up dancing and singing in the aisles. The music is fantastic, the dancing is phenomenal.”
Returning to Riverside as director and choreographer is Broadway veteran Patti D’Beck. Patrons will remember fondly her past Riverside productions of “9 to 5,” “Sister Act,” “Phantom” and others. D’Beck’s 30-year Broadway career included performing as an actress as well as working as dance captain, supervisor and associate choreographer.
“I remember the ’70s well. I lived through that time and the disco era,” said D’Beck. Researching for “Saturday Night Fever,” she said, “was just a kick, going back and remembering all those moves.”
The soundtrack of the movie—featuring songs by the Bee Gees like “You Should Be Dancing,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “More Than a Woman” and “Stayin’ Alive”—remained at the top of album charts for 24 straight weeks from January to July 1978 and swept the Grammys. The album stayed on Billboard charts until March 1980—120 weeks.
Most of that music remains in the musical, but with a twist.
“The songs are more integrated into the story of the show,” said Michael Notardonato, who plays Tony Manero at the Riverside. “The characters get to sing the songs to advance the plot.”
Originally from the Chicago area, Notardonato started his professional theater career performing there, then earned a BFA from The Boston Conservatory. He now lives in New York City.
Notardonato played the John Travolta part in “Saturday Night Fever” for seven months last year on Royal Caribbean cruise ships, so he approaches the Riverside production backed with a boatload of experience.
“I’m not here to do an impersonation of John Travolta,” he said (although his looks are similar). “I’m just playing a Brooklyn 19-year-old who loves to dance. My job is to give my own interpretation of the character, to breathe new life into it.”
In the play, Tony works at a hardware store and lives with his parents. His passion is dancing at the local club every weekend, where he is wanted by all the women and envied by all the men. The plot focuses on a dance contest Tony enters with a new dancing partner, Stephanie Mangano, who dreams of breaking away from her Brooklyn background and making it big across the bridge in Manhattan.
Riverside’s “Saturday Night Fever” features a new script, revised by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti, with several new and original songs. The female characters have more depth and agency, and the language is cleaned up.
“It’s still a pretty racy show,” Notardonato said. “You’re not seeing ‘Mary Poppins.’ There are some serious topics. The dancing really helps the characters express themselves and escape for a while.”
Melissa Rapelje said for her, playing the role of Stephanie Mangano is like going home. “I actually am a New York Italian,” she laughed. “I love the accent because I grew up listening to it.”
She said when she was in high school and later when she studied musical theater and vocal performance at New York University, Rapelje’s teachers really worked hard to completely eliminate any hint of that accent from her speech.
“So it’s kind of fun having an excuse to use it,” she said.
Most recently Rapelje performed in the off-Broadway hit, “The Awesome ’80s Prom,” and played the role of Daphne in the first national tour of “Scooby-Doo Live Musical Mysteries.”
Of her “Saturday Night Fever” character, Rapelje said, “I really love her. So many of us put up a wall like she does, when we have insecurities and don’t feel like we fit in. What Tony does for Stephanie is he breaks down those barriers for her.”
Rapelje added that the plot has heart. “It’s a really sweet love story,” she said.
A’Hearn said the set has an upgraded lighting system that includes many new LED lights. “They really are spectacular, they just add a lot of color and depth,” he said.
The costumes, Rapelje said, are delightful. “They’re so ’70s! Angela did a beautiful job,” she said, referring to costume designer Angela Cartsensen. “People were all saying, ‘I remember wearing that when I was in high school!’ They’re super fun.”
Notardonato agreed. “The costumes are tailor made. I think I have nine costumes,” he said. It’s really exciting, ’70s disco, seeing the whole show come to life, the set pieces, colors, the live orchestra—it’s just huge and bright and vibrant.”
“The whole cast is such a dedicated group of actors,” D’Beck said. “As actors, Michael and Melissa have great impulses, so they’ve brought a lot to their roles. I really value their ideas, their input and commitment to the characters.”
After the curtain call, A’Hearn said they reprise several of the songs, which he said gets everyone up and dancing.
“It’s just so fun,” he said. “Especially with everything going on in the world today, we want to let people come here and just forget all that for a while and have a good time.”