Jesse Cline has been artistic director of the Media Theatre for 25 years. Directing more than 50 musicals, he has won Broadway World and Barrymore Awards. For his new show, Saturday Night Fever, The Musical (through June 9), Cline cherry-picks from the history of Saturday Night Fever musicals to steer the ’70s dystopian classic into a cheerier, family-friendly direction.
It helps that he casts Broadway’s Jesse Corbin (great hair) in the star role of Tony Manero. Corbin does not emulate John Travolta’s iconic solo dance number (good luck trying to do that). But in a virile, Gene Kelly way, Corbin’s performance is in keeping with Cline’s more hopeful vision of who Tony ought to be.
Melissa Rapelje, another beautiful person who can sing and dance, plays love interest Stephanie. She speaks comical Brooklynese and dreams of making it big with the Manhattan artsy crowd. Rapelje deftly understates her character’s mix of fear and pride, so you believe in Stephanie’s final emergence into the sunlight.
But it is the set design of Matthew Miller that completely draws you in. With its ironworks spanning center stage, the symbolic Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is like a barrier wall to a glamorous life. In mesmerizing 3D fashion, a rear wall video changes scene — the bridge, the disco dance floor, the Brooklyn back alleys. More cinematic than cinema, these effects have impact: It is rare to feel sense of place so deeply.
The Bee Gees are ubiquitous in this musical reincarnation by music director Ben Kapilow, and thanks to choreographer Christian Ryan, the place is jumping. Stars and ensemble performers pound out lower-class anger in “Dog Eat Dog” and “Stayin’ Alive.” Back at the 2001 Odyssey club, Candy (high-energy Tamara Della Anderson) force-feeds redemptive disco gaiety to the struggling young with “Nights On Broadway” and “Disco Inferno.”
Class conflict and love troubles are advanced through song. Cohost Monty (aptly smarmy JP Dunphy) helps Candy launch “Night Fever” and “You Should Be Dancing.” Star-crossed lovers Bobby (Ronnie Keller) and Pauline (Kelsey Hodgkiss) quarrel in “Jive Talkin’.” When in distress, characters sing soliloquies, as with Annette’s “If I Can’t Have You” (lovely, plaintive Anna Ferrigno).
By itself, the music helps eviscerate the dead-ender despair of the original Saturday Night Fever. But there is more. While the young still live hardscrabble lives, there is a genuine “happy ending,” and everyone has less need for fraudulent consolations. And in the movie classic, Travolta’s electrifying solo is like a drug hit, a solitary, ecstatic act that lives and dies with its three minutes on the dance floor. But this Tony does not need such an exultant moment because he is just a less desperate person.