By Gail Choochan for The Free Lance-Star
Disco and hair. And for one Brooklyn teenager, that is everything.
Riverside Center for the Performing Arts is looking to bring disco fever to audiences with its current production of “Saturday Night Fever.”
The musical, based on the iconic John Travolta movie, follows Tony Manero, a Brooklyn 19-year-old who doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. Except for maybe the hair. Please don’t touch his hair.
Leaving his sad reality aside, Tony escapes to the dance floor with friends, where everyone treats him like a star and ladies swoon over him. Life is just a dance for him until he finds that spark, which comes in the form of Stephanie Mangano, an office worker who has dreams of making it in Manhattan. He’s ready to drop everything—including his hardware-store job—for this girl who at first doesn’t seem that into him.
Playing Tony is Michael Notardonato, who is very likable in this role. He’s got the looks, the singing and the moves down. Just watch him work the 2001 Odyssey club crowd into a frenzy when he’s heating the dance floor during the song “You Should Be Dancing.” In between moves, his character is kissing random girls and taking swigs from their drinks. There’s not a lot of depth to his character, who has much growing up to do, which unfortunately comes later at a price. You get a better glimpse of the real Tony during songs like “Tragedy,” “Top of Your Game” and “100 Reasons,” beautifully sung with Melissa Rapelje. As Tony’s love interest, Stephanie comes off cold initially and a bit superior-sounding, but she later reveals a softer side. Rapelje shows off her impressive range during a moving rendition of “What Kind of Fool.”
Other touching tunes include “If I Can’t Have You,” sung by Taylor Short as Annette, the girl who longs for Tony even though he has eyes for another; and “How Deep is Your Love,” a sweet number shared by Gavin Rohrer as Tony’s good friend Bobby C and Alyssa Bornschein as Pauline.
Last seen in “Million Dollar Quartet” as Jerry Lee Lewis, Rohrer gives one of the show’s stronger performances. There’s a realness found in Bobby C and not in the other guys, who are still reveling in youthful nonsense. He struggles with the news that his girlfriend is going to have a baby and looks to Tony for support; Tony, however, is more occupied with his own life, specifically Stephanie.
Watching Tony—and his impeccably dressed self—strut his way from one situation to another, whether hanging out with his friends, dancing at the club or chasing the girl, you can’t help but want more from this story.
Instead of using the book for the initial stage production which had the stamp of four writers, Riverside opts for the family-friendly adaptation from Robert Stigwood with Bill Oakes, which may be a bonus for parents who are entertaining the idea of bringing the kids to the show and introducing them to the ’70s. With this version, the sex, drugs and violence are out along with references to racial conflict—although you can see traces of racism.
It would have been nice if the show’s writers also explored Tony’s home life more, especially with talented Riverside regulars Alan Hoffman and Kathy Halenda playing his parents. They seem underused in these roles. And for this being July 1977 and the Summer of Sam when a serial killer was on the loose terrorizing the boroughs of New York City, a lack of fear and danger is noticeably apparent. When Stephanie appears at the dance studio, Tony doesn’t walk Annette home after their rehearsal.
Riverside’s “Saturday Night Fever” is a pretty squeaky-clean production that plays up the fun of the ’70s with all the colorful getups and hairy-chest sounds of the Bee Gees that will leave you with earworms for days. Angela Carstensen must have had a field day dressing up the cast in wild patterns, sequins, gold lamé and silky shirts.
From “Boogie Shoes,” a fun little number with Tony and his buddies, to “You Should Be Dancing,” with our young hero dancing up a storm, conductor Garrett Jones and the solid live band don’t miss a beat. Director Patti D’Beck is also behind all the dance moves, which really come alive during those ensemble numbers. When Kadejah Oné as Candy, gifted with a great big voice and personality to match, breaks into song during “Disco Inferno” at the 2001 Odyssey, the whole scene just pulsates with energy.
The story may not be the greatest, but it’s really the music that’s the real draw here.