REVIEW: Saturday Night Fever – Dance extravaganza, but not a musical theatre masterpiece

The cast of Saturday Night Fever – UK Tour 2019 – Photo by Paul Coltas

Venue: Milton Keynes Theatre

Performance Date: 15 October 2019

Star Rating: ★★★

Reviewer: Sam Dunning

John Travolta danced his way into stardom in 1977 by taking on the now iconic role of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. Although he was fairly well known on the teen-scene, playing a lead role in American high-school sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, he was a relatively new face to adults, but cemented his future as a household name by wowing cinema audiences worldwide with his incredibly arrogant yet charismatic and charming character and incredible dance ability.

The movie Saturday Night Fever was theoretically a pre-cursor for the eagerly awaited upcoming film adaptation of the musical Grease, set to be released the year after, but the producers and creative team were shocked and elated that it received massive critical acclaim and financial triumph in its own right. Travolta of course starred in Grease too, enhancing his popularity and success even further with another expert dancer, heart-throb role.

The stage version of Saturday Night Fever has now surpassed 20 years of West End and touring success. Early productions saw Lawrence Olivier nominations. International productions were seen all over the world including Holland, Mexico, Argentina, Korea, Spain and many more, reiterating the huge popularity of both the film and the theatrical show and it continues to have an extensive following to this day. This Bill Kenwright rendition began its tour in August 2018 and is in its last venue at Milton Keynes Theatre.

It has to be said this production is not necessarily for a true musical theatre fan. The concept and style are a little alien to musical enthusiasts and dance ability certainly appears to have been the sole focus of the casting team. The majority of songs in the show, with a few exceptions, are performed by The Bee Gees – played superbly by Jake Byrom (Barry Gibb), James Kenenth Haughan (Maurice Gibb), and Danny Knott (Robin Gibb) – and supported by the on stage band, who are also fantastic,  while the cast dance enthusiastically and sometimes join in with backing vocals.

The rare occasions where a cast member takes on a solo (although still supported by The Bee Gees) are not particularly impressive, the brief appearing to be dancers who can sing as opposed to true triple threat performers. The dynamics also seemed a little off in these instances, often lyrics were hard to interpret and drowned by the music.

On the other hand, dance aficionados are likely to be in their element watching this piece. Lead by ballet superstar and ex Casualty bad-boy Richard Winsor as Tony Manero, the choreography is masterfully executed by the entire cast. On stage, all are in sync with one another, and the energy of each routine is equal to, and at times surpasses, the next.

Despite the brilliance of the cast as a whole, Faizal Jaye as DJ Monty stands out above the rest, bringing true meaning to the phrase “Turn it up to 11!” and deservedly drawing attention throughout. Winsor is unquestionably an incredible dancer; he covers the entire stage and moves effortlessly and perfectly. However it perhaps shows that he is not in his element with this particular style of dance, as he doesn’t actually seem to come out of second gear – more completes each move as it should be, but without a little extra flair or enjoyment that he would be showing if it were his speciality of ballet. Nonetheless his performance is engaging and his version of the role an admirable homage to Travolta’s character.

The set has been very cleverly designed; moving stage pieces effectively and convincingly portray a variety of locations including the dance club, rehearsal studio and Manero’s home. The costumes are wonderful, and the lighting is also fabulous, that true 1970s feeling never once falters during the whole evening.

The undoubted star of the production though, is of course the music. All the memorable songs of The Bee Gees are in the show, and few attendees would not be familiar with the hit tunes, however the average age of those filling the auditorium leans expectedly towards the generation who would have experienced the ‘70s dance club scene first hand, and as such is enthusiastically received. The vibrations felt through the room of foot tapping, clapping and dancing in the seats (and aisles at the end) are absolutely as expected and, justifiably, there are very few faces to be seen without smiles at curtain call.

In conclusion the show is very good, the cast are all superb dancers and the music makes for an enjoyable evening. However, those coming anticipating a musical theatre spectacle are likely to leave disappointed.

Runs until: Saturday 19 October

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