You know that Simpsons episode where Mr Burns and Smithers drug Tom Jones and chain him to a stage to perform at gunpoint for Marge and Homer? “Get help, love,” Tom whispers to Marge between verses of It’s Not Unusual. “Call Interpol, get me a hacksaw, anything.”
It came to me as I watched Marcia Hines inexplicably belt out her 1977 hit You on stage at Sydney’s ghastly Star casino in the middle of the even ghastlier Bee Gees jukebox show Saturday Night Fever, her incandescent frock betraying the glazed look in her eyes.
Is somebody making you do this, Marcia? Blink twice for yes. We’ll send help.
Saturday Night Fever is, of course, the gritty examination of class and sex and the dazzling sub-culture of disco in 1970s New York. Or at least it was in the 1976 New York magazine feature that inspired the story, and to some degree in the wildly popular 1977 film that made John Travolta a bonafide movie star and the soundtrack one of the best-selling of all time.
On stage, in this 1998 West End-born remount, it’s a cluttered cabaret of familiar tunes, slick moves and cardboard characters flat-packed for a family audience. To those nostalgic for the times, and kids and pets distracted by colour and movement, perhaps it’s $110 (for the best seats) well spent.
To the rest of us it’s a remarkably tedious affair. A story with almost no stakes. Earnest and witless, when laughing at itself might have been this show’s only hope in 2019. Sexist, certainly. Probably racist. Garishly designed with mostly digital sets. Way too loud (there is a pit orchestra of eight, but for all the distortion it hardly seems worth it). With a sharp disconnect between a Greek chorus of four singers belting out the Gees’ hits and the actors/dancers whose stories we’re supposed to be invested in.
And Marcia isn’t the only one looking bored. Her Australian Idol protege, Paulini Curuenavuli, gets star billing but is reduced to the sideline vocals along with Bobby Fox (a little shaky on the all-important falsetto), Nana Matapule and Natalie Conway. Curuenavuli, who starred gamely in The Bodyguard in 2017, has the strongest voice and looked the least interested in the whole exercise. You can hardly blame her.
Euan Doidge steps into Travolta’s boots as Tony Manero, the Brooklyn brawler who just wants to dance. He’s got the necessary defined muscles and definitive moves, borrowed largely from the film, tirelessly leading the crack ensemble in high energy dance numbers. It’s the bits in the middle that are the problem.
Melanie Hawkins is Stephani, who wins his heart through dancing and the desire for something better than this. She’s Doidge’s equal on the dancefloor. Tony’s former dance partner, gooey-eyed Annette, is given short shrift and, with Angelique Cassimatis in the role, comes closest to any emotional impact. She also gets to sing, unlike the leads, delivering a lovelorn adaptation of If I Can’t Have You, demonstrating what could have been achieved with the catalogue of songs the show had at its disposal.
You know the ones:
Stayin’ Alive, You Should Be Dancing, Night Fever, Jive Talkin’, What Kind Of Fool, Tragedy, Immortality, How Deep Is Your Love, et al. Everyone knows the words. And there’s a determination to make sure you don’t see them in any new light.
The other male performers – like they got lost on the way to Jersey Boys – do their best with the material they’ve got. Though particular credit goes to Tim “Timomatic” Omaji, who at least brings a sense of fun to the near-offensive black DJ character. TV veterans Denise Drysdale and Mark Mitchell are Tony’s pre-recorded parents, comedy foils projected onto the back of the stage.
Marcia sits out the first act and finally appears as the diva dance judge Estella. After energising the audience with You – jimmied into the show presumably to fill out the part – she’s reduced to clapping on the sidelines. Eight times a week. I hope the cheque is a large one.
Anything approaching social commentary – the alcoholic father, the priest in a crisis of faith, the pregnant teen, discrimination against race and class – is immediately and awkwardly dispatched with a high kick. Like the admittedly gargantuan mirror ball overhead, it’s smooth, shiny and entirely empty.
Saturday Night Fever plays the Lyric Theatre, The Star booking until June 2