Surflight’s ‘Saturday Night Fever’ Will Leave You With Chills

Even Hard-Core Disco Haters May Be Won Over
Aug 13, 2018
Photo by: Studio 63 Photography John Guaragna as Tony Manero and Erica Barton as Stephanie Mangano.

I can’t believe I’m saying this about the current Surflight Theatre production, “Saturday Night Fever,” but I lov, lov, lov…

Let me try again. Deep breath… I lov, lov, loved it.

In fact, I absolutely loved it!

That’s high praise indeed because I thoroughly hated disco in its heyday. I hated it so much that although I liked, if not loved, the 1977 film, I would never admit that to anyone, including myself. Come on, who couldn’t have found John Travolta’s dancing amazing – who knew Vinnie Barbarino of “Welcome Back Kotter” could dance?

Dancing and the Bee Gees’ music were the highlight of the movie but it also had a much better than average screenplay, written by Norman Wexler and based on a New York Magazine article by Nik Cohn, a British rock journalist who later admitted fabricating his reporting. The musical’s book follows Wexler’s screenplay fairly closely, although its sex, violence and drug use have been muted.

Tony Manero (John Guaragna), is a 19-year-old who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He has a dead-end job in a paint store owned by Mr. Fusco (Gabe Gatti), has friends – Bobby C (Bradley Ford Betros), Joey (Vincent Andaloro), Double J (Ryan Mulvaney) and Gus (Bobby Davis) – who are in similar straits (Bobby C works in a White Castle while the others seem to have no jobs at all), and is seemingly becoming aware that his future holds little promise and he could end up like his bitter, laid-off father, Frank (David Discenza). Tony is certainly not going to become a priest like his brother Frank Junior (Owen Beans) and feels his father and mother Flo (Gerri Weagraff) consider him the black sheep of the family. But how can he break away?

Tony spends his non-working hours in what was then typical Outer Borough fashion – hanging out. One favorite spot is the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where he and his friends like to prove their manhood by risking their lives walking on the bridge’s gigantic cables. The other, reserved for Saturday nights, is the 2001 Odyssey, a local disco club where his dancing skills make him the cock of the walk.

The 2001 Odyssey is hosting a dance competition, which Tony thinks he can win if he can find an accomplished partner. And, as a guy who just got a raise of $4 a week that had his father sneering, he sure could use his split of the $1,000 prize.

His first dance partner is Annette (Lizzy Tierney), a local girl who has a severe case of the hots for Tony. But then he meets another dancer, Stephanie Mangano (Erica Barton), who is not only a better dancer than Annette, but, although she is only a year older than Tony, is much more mature.

Stephanie is already working as a temp agency secretary in mysterious and glamorous Manhattan, where she hopes to move. Tony, and especially his friends, find her pretentious at first, but she grows on him when he realizes she has a plan to get ahead in life while he is seemingly stuck in neutral.

Tony is starting to think dancing can be his way out. Frank Junior supports him.

Meanwhile, there are a few subplots. Bobby C has gotten his girlfriend, Pauline (Leslie Blake Walker), pregnant. He hasn’t told her yet, but after pushing her away for most of the show decides he will marry her as much for love as necessity. Annette, having lost Tony, is going out of her mind. Meanwhile, the friends are having trouble with some Latinos – shades of “West Side Story” – with Gus ending up in the hospital thanks to a beating. (He thinks it might have been at the hands of a local gang, the Barracudas, but isn’t sure, which upsets his friends to the nth degree when, having exacted their revenge, they realize they might now have two gangs after them.)

There will be no need for spoiler alerts here because I’m not going to give away any endings. Be advised, though, that if you remember how everything worked out in the movie, some things were changed in the musical’s book.

So, if I only liked the movie, why did I love the Surflight’s production of the musical? First and foremost, the dancing was incredible. Guaragna didn’t have the luxury of multiple takes that Travolta had in the movie and still managed to reach almost the same level of dexterity – live! And wait until you see the pair of “Latin dancers” (Ryland Marbutt and Ashley Agrusa) who prove the main contest competition to Tony and Stephanie. Indeed, the entire cast was up to the dancing challenge that “Saturday Night Fever” poses.

As for singing, Christa Steiner, playing the role of a local disco diva named Candy, hit some high notes that blew my mind. She was bewigged (or had spent hours on her hair), so I didn’t immediately recognize her despite knowing her since she was a toddler. “Who is this girl?” I wondered, looking in the Playbill to find out. Wow!

The show’s acting ranged from solid to superb. Discenza and Gatti were perfectly cast as Mr. Fusco and Frank Manero. Guaragna portrayed the right attitude as Tony. Betros, who had spent the last several weeks in ensemble parts, stepped up to a major supporting role in fine fashion – his wrestling with the thought of getting married and being a father seemed sincere.

It was Barton as Stephanie, however, who elevated Surflight’s “Saturday Night Fever” above a mere song and dance extravaganza. Stephanie’s attempts to change herself so she can take the huge step from being a Brooklyn girl to a Manhattan sophisticate by constantly correcting her language was played in an understated manner instead of playing for laughs. And her slow but steady acceptance of Tony’s affection created an authentic chemistry between them.

As for the show’s music, well, damn if it isn’t catchy. This coming from somebody who despised the Bee Gees!

Things sure have changed in the 40 years since the release of the movie. Hipsters are now trying to move out of Manhattan for Brooklyn. And this reviewer left the theater hu, hu – deep breath… humming “Stayin’ Alive” and “More Than a Woman”!

“Saturday Night Fever” will play through Aug. 26. Tickets are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the box office, located at 201 Engleside Ave. in Beach Haven.

— Rick Mellerup

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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