By BRUCE DENNILL
Saturday Night Fever / Directed by Greg Homann / Opera, South African State Theatre, Pretoria
As the beginning of a run of shows that will, it is hoped, play an important role in the re-positioning of the State Theatre as not only the fully-functioning high-end entertainment complex it once was but also the focal point of a regeneration of a whole section of Tshwane that could benefit should the theatres introduce new trade to support the outlets on the surrounding streets (currently shuttered by the time you arrive for a production), Saturday Night Fever is an important marker.
Choosing a piece associated with the top-selling film soundtrack of all time guarantees wide audience accessibility – even if someone has no idea what is going on in the story, the strains of Stayin’ Alive, How Deep Is Your Love, Jive Talkin’, Night Fever, Nights On Broadway and a handful of other huge hits by the Bee Gees mean being indifferent to what’s going on is impossible.
The dancing that takes place while that music is playing is the other defining facet of the original film, and the very tricky singing – it’s easy to forget how difficult the phrasing of the songs as performed by the Gibbs brothers is until you hear a live performance of the compositions – and execution of the high-energy choreography in this new production is generally good.
Daniel Buys in the pivotal role of Tony Manero, who is onstage in nearly every scene, gives a strong performance. He has a fantastic voice – memorably showcased during his time as part of the Jersey Boys cast – and all the swagger necessary to give would-be lothario Manero the magnetism required. Other stand-outs include Kiruna Lind-Devar as sweet, earnest Pauline, and Craig Urbani as Pete, manager at the studios where Tony practices his moves. One of the younger performers in the cast, Devar is also one of the most convincing, and her vocal prowess is impressive. And Urbani, who also plays the old-fashioned, conservative Frank Manero, Tony’s father, blows off steam hilariously as Pete, particularly in the character’s first cameo leading a dance rehearsal.
As a stage musical, though, Saturday Night Fever is flawed. Other than Pauline, Frank Junior (Cameron Botha) and, at a stretch, Bobby C (Matthew Berry), there are no likeable protagonists. The rest of the characters are superficial, narcissistic and narrow-minded – Tony chief among them. Their lives consist of preening in front of mirrors, slagging off anyone who doesn’t share their perspective and making money to blow in the local nightclub via dead-end jobs (Tony’s an assistant in a paint shop).
This makes them, collectively and individually, difficult to like. Easy to watch, sure – they’re beautiful people with mesmerising moves – but impossible to fully invest in. Add to that the stilted pacing of the narrative – gaps are needed to allow lifts and sets to be shifted around, but there is also just some less than slick manoeuvring from scene to scene. It’s not the fault of those behind this production, being rather a function of the original script, but it does impact negatively on the flow of the piece. Some of the dialogue is also farcically simplistic, regardless of how unsophisticated the folks uttering the lines are supposed to be.
Set and lighting designer Denis Hutchinson has intelligently solved the challenge of the light-up dance floor in the 2001 Odyssey Disco Club using a square of bright light on the stage and a huge reflector that descends from the flies for the club scenes, and the multi-storey framing structures that act as struts of the Brooklyn Bridge, apartments, bedrooms and diners depending on the scene are cleverly made and effective.
There were occasional distractions courtesy of the state the State Theatre complex is in – most notably the annoying drum-and-bass noise bleeding into the Opera Theatre from the nightclub that leases a corner of the building. That doesn’t happen at the Lincoln Centre… There are other touches, beyond the stage and the auditorium, that will hopefully also begin to improve as the regeneration process continues. For one thing, the downstairs foyer was, when I attended my first-ever theatrical production there in 1979 or thereabouts (a version of The Nutcracker, slightly predictably) awe-inspiring. At present it is merely large – there is no personality to the space.
What this take on Saturday Night Fever does achieve, however, is underlining the pathos of the storyline, of the loneliness that lies beneath the bravado of Manero and his cohorts. It does that, arguably, more effectively that the original film – possibly because of this show’s geographical context, in a building and a collection of facilities that has been great and could be again, should audiences sustainably come to the party. And as they come more often, they might become more sensitive to dramatic themes: as it was, there were isolated pockets of onlookers on opening night who laughed at some lines in the script that showed the latent racism of Manero’s crew. That’s disturbing because xenophobia is as serious an issue now as it was then, and because Tony’s only redemptive moment, after the dance competition in the club, relies on the shock value of his change of heart in that area.
Cautious optimism, then: a good show that patches up the occasional weaknesses in the source material well, giving audiences a solid reason to bring heart and soul back to the State Theatre.