By Barry Reszel
Perhaps more than any other musical genre, Disco, that “you can definitely dance to this” curious combo of funk, pop, salsa and soul, defines a specific time.
It was to be the last musical contribution gasp for the oft-heralded Baby Boom generation. Their disco heydays from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s are ingrained with images of big hair, leisure suits, polyester, spandex, platform shoes and lots of gold chains. Of Charlie’s Angels and The Love Boat. Donna Summer, KC and the Sunshine Band, The Village People, Gloria Gaynor and of course, The Bee Gees.
But the singular disco archetype, the consciousness-etched image of the era, is John Travolta as Tony Manero on the dance floor in his white suit, disco ball in the background, Karen Lynn Gorney as Stephanie Mangano looking on adoringly. Indeed, the icon of the cultural phenomenon that is disco is Saturday Night Fever.
The hugely successful film was released in December 1977, and its soundtrack, featuring a Bee Gees-heavy soundtrack that includes hits like “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Night Fever,” “More Than a Woman,” “Boogie Shoes” and “Jive Talkin,” became one of the best-selling albums of all time. The idea for the film was sparked by a 1976 magazine article, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” that allegedly chronicled the disco culture in mid-1970s New York City, but was later revealed to have been fabricated. Still, cultural observers credited the film for mainstreaming disco.
In mounting the stage musical version that played a rather unceremonious 500-plus Broadway performances 16 years ago, the creative team at Drury Lane relies on very strong strong leads and an exceptionally energetic, young dance ensemble to hustle their way through the Norman Wexler screenplay, rather choppily adapted for the stage by Nan Knighton, in collaboration with Arlene Phillips, Paul Nicholas and Robert Stigwood (North American version by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti.)
The real challenge to the piece is offering a favorable comparison to its indelible original, and to do it live, eight times a week, not in eight takes if that’s what’s needed. And the yeoman’s share of this responsibility falls to the man cast as the iconic Tony Manero.
Handsome triple threat Adrian Aguilar is perfectly up to the task. With a strong local resume including roles at Chicago Shakespeare, Paramount, Marriott and Porchlight, among others, Aguilar’s star shines brightly as the Brooklyn 19-year-old whose weekends as the local discotheque’s star are juxtaposed against a going-nowhere-fast life working at a paint store, hanging with his old high school friends and living with his folks. (A full plot summary may be read here.)
Aguilar’s return to Chicago following his Broadway work on Rocky (including understudying the title role) has the audience (and onstage love interests and onlookers alike) in the palm of his hand from his appearance (“Stayin’ Alive”) through his the final song (“More Than a Woman”). With rich vocals, smooth dance moves and stylistic strut, Aguilar seems born to play this role.
He is well complemented by the terrific Erica Stephan as Stephanie. This “older,” sophisticated dancer dazzles Tony with her dance and beauty while frustrating him with her aura of mystery. He’d likely pay to hear this gorgeous woman sing the alphabet, too. Stephanie is well contrasted with Annette, the needy neighborhood girl who truly loves Tony in her own simplistic way. Lovely Landree Fleming plays the role honestly and with passion.
Other performances of note come from transgender performer and Glee star (Wade/Unique) Alex Newell, who narrates the show as Candy, the disco queen. Every vocal emanating from this talented performer is magnificent. Tony’s pals, though it seems a stretch to call them a gang, are well played by Brandon Springman, Joe Capstick, Will Lidke and particularly by Nick Cosgrove. Skyler Adams is memorable Tony’s brother, Frank, Jr., as is Monica Thomas playing Doreen.
Director/Choreographer Dan Knechtges (Xanadu on Broadway), gives great latitude to his young dance ensemble, allowing them in most scenes to give into the frenetic nature of the discotheque. Olivia Renteria and Michael Samarie George are particular standouts. When they’re not busting moves, Knechtges keeps the ensemble present to observe the goings on in the Manero housefold, on the street and in the dance studio.
This tableau effect serves to highlight Kevin Depinet’s massive two-tier set centered around the 2001 Odyssey disco. Ryan O’Gara‘s gorgeous lighting design extends to Drury Lane’s venerable crystal house chandeliers and Rachel Laritz/Penny Lane Studios perfectly achieve that late 70’s look with costumes and wigs/hair design.
The greatest nits about this show include its failed attempt to parallel West Side Story‘s racial gang tension and the overall lack of cohesion and flow between the scenes. Those are on the book writers.
But its saving grace is that, to many audience members coming to see Saturday Night Fever, those nits simply don’t matter; the point of seeing this show is time travel. And Drury Lane’s assembled talent is more than capable of taking folks back to a time when they believed they should be dancing.
Drury Lane Theatre presents “Saturday Night Fever” through March 19 at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. More information and tickets are available here.