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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Saturday Night Fever
Apollo Victoria Theatre       2004-2006

Yet another entry in the theatre-for-people-who-don't-go-to-the-theatre category, and a perfectly adequate example of the genre, this production played London a few years back and has been touring the provinces since.

There's no reason why it shouldn't settle in for a while, playing to the same coachloads of Italian teenagers that have kept Fame going. Whether anybody else should bother is another question.

Based, of course, on the 1977 film about a Brooklyn youth whose only pleasure and accomplishment is being the best dancer at the local disco, the stage version follows the familiar plot pretty closely, with the one major structural difference of moving the Bee Gees songs from background to onstage singing.

With only a couple of exceptions, the songs are all occasions for dance numbers, and director-choreographer Arlene Phillips' two roles are virtually identical, the non musical plot sequences kept to an absolute minimum. And the choreography, as you might expect from her, is always good and occasionally first-rate, hitting its peak in the climactic dance contest scene.

While the almost continuous dancing and the classic pop score are enough to satisfy the audience for which the show is intended, those with higher expectations will notice two big flaws that keep the show from being even better.

The less obvious of the two is that the inevitable pruning of the script to make room for the songs almost completely destroys one of the film's biggest strengths, the real sense of time and place it gave, and the insight into a working-class community of limited horizons, for whom Manhattan (10 minutes away) was a distant and exotic place, and there really seemed no future beyond next Saturday night at the disco.

The musical tells us it's in Brooklyn, and the characters all have funny accents, but it isn't anchored in any reality. That's not a crippling flaw - does Phantom really give us any sense of being in 19th century Paris?  It's just a missed opportunity whose absence you might notice.

(Along with that, a misguided attempt to pay lip service to the filmscript means that some characters and sequences that have important milieu-setting roles in the original, like the hero's priest brother or the gang fight, are raced through so quickly they add nothing and make little sense on their own.)

More important is a gaping hole in the centre of the show where the star should be. Probably nobody today could capture the magnetic sexuality that the young John Travolta brought to the film, but Stephane Anelli is all but invisible in the role.

Recently promoted to the lead from a supporting role, Anelli's singing is OK, and he dances about as well as most of the background dancers. But the entire premise of the show is that this guy is the best dancer around, and he isn't.

Perhaps to disguise that fact, most of what you would expect to be his solos are turned into production numbers, in which he blends so well into the chorus line that you may repeatedly lose sight of him.

We have to take on faith what the play keeps telling but never showing us - that he's a natural leader of men, desired by all women, and a great dancer.

We also have to take on faith that the girl he teams up with for the dance contest represents an alternative, an awareness of a life outside Brooklyn.

Zoe Ebsworth dances adequately, but her acting is pathetic and her attempt at a Brooklyn accent tragic. Far from being a hint of wider horizons, she comes across as a parody of everything to be escaped from.

All the dramatic weight of the script is thrust on Kym Marsh as the local girl with a crush on the hero, and she carries it well, even though there is little logic in this secondary character intermittently seizing dramatic focus or getting the most dramatic musical solos.

TV soap star Shaun Williamson provides some humour as the overage, overweight club DJ, and Alex Jessop gets a big dramatic number as the gang member facing a scary future - another case of a very minor character suddenly carrying more weight than you'd expect.

As I've said before, I do not object to theatre-for-people-who-don't-go-to-the-theatre. Unlike some, this show doesn't cheat that audience. It gives them what they came for an uncomplicated Good Night Out. Some of us could wish it had been a bit more ambitious.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Saturday Night Fever - Apollo Victoria Theatre 2004