SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — There are highs and lows in the Theatre by the Sea’s “Saturday Night Fever.” The dancing, the costumes and the emotions are among the former; the pacing in the latter category.
But a young cast that gives its all, and a score of popular Bee Gees hits make the production worth seeing.
Based on the hugely successful 1977 movie starring John Travolta, the show centers on Tony Manero, who lives with his parents and gets by on a dead-end job in a paint store. The bright spot in his existence is dancing at the local disco where his talent earns the recognition so lacking in the rest of his life.
Tony sees opportunity when a dance competition, with a cash prize, is announced. He also discovers a talented dancer, Stephanie Mangano, whom he convinces to be his partner. As they rehearse, their “professional” arrangement, however, turns to love.
There are lots of stereotypes at play in the story, from a disapproving dad to the misguided goals, or lack thereof, among Tony and his friends. The script, moreover, breezes over dark sub-plots about relations between Brooklyn’s Italian and Latino populations, the macho way of dealing with women, and the easy acceptance of violence. It’s a credit to the actors and director, Richard Sabellico, that they find some honest emotion in predictable situations.
As Tony, actor Schyler Conaway’s initial scenes on Sunday lacked the swagger we expect from his character, and his “Stayin’ Alive” vocals were a little wobbly. But Conaway got stronger as the show progressed, and he came up with believable feeling in the dramatic closing scenes at the dance competition and in his relationship with Stephanie, helped by the polished professional work of Melissa Rapelje.
Rapelje shows clear understanding of her character: an ambitious woman hiding insecurities behind an aloof demeanor. She has lots of attitude -- and a lovely singing voice. The back-and-forth with Conaway on “100 Reasons” is musical and emotional on both of their parts.
Standing out among supporting characters is Sam Brackley as Bobby. His strength as an actor is actions that belie his feelings; when he ditches his girlfriend to just impress his male friends, we understand that he really still cares for the girl. Brackley also has nice voice, which shows up on “Jive Talkin’” and the “Dog Eat Dog” number sung with the rest of the guys.
The dancing is consistently energetic and entertaining. The large cast fills the stage with precisely performed moves, all enhanced by colorful, era-evoking costumes. Oddly, Tony and Stephanie are far from the flashiest dancers, but the ensemble always is watchable.
The orchestra sounds fine, but thinking back to the movie soundtrack, the tempo could use a little juicing if audiences are supposed to “feel like dancin’.” That goes for the overall pace of the production, particularly toward the end of the traditionally longer first act.
Nevertheless, there are enough high spots to make “Saturday Night Fever” an entertaining choice for a summer afternoon or evening.
Performances continue though Sept. 8 at Bill Hanney’s Theatre By The Sea, 364 Cards Pond Road, Wakefield. Tickets are $54-$77 and available at the box office, by calling (401) 782-TKTS (8587) or (866) 811-4111, or online at www.theatrebythesea.com.
Theatre By The Sea owner and producer Bill Hanney also announced that next year’s season will begin earlier than usual with an encore production in May of last year’s popular “Mamma Mia!” The regular season presents the Tony Award-nominated “Million Dollar Quartet” from June 10-28, 2020; “Funny Girl” from July 1-19; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” from July 22-Aug. 15; and “Kinky Boots” from Aug. 19-Sept. 13.