Let's be honest, Saturday Night Fever is critic-proof. The 1998 stage musical of the 1997 film comes back into London to fill the 2200-seater Apollo Victoria while Bombay Dreams is on sabbatical, and fill the theatre it will, regardless of what we scribblers might say. It does pull off one remarkable achievement: it succeeds in getting even an unregenerate "Death to Disco" militant like me to defend the genre against the overblown, homogenising makeover it receives here. This isn't a nostalgia show: it trades on nostalgia, pretends that's what it's offering, but actually delivers a bland, shiny 1990s facsimile of its 1970s subject matter.
Disco music was oddly humourless, but the dancing it fuelled was an act of personal liberation, of escape from the grind of the everyday. That's exactly what drives protagonist Tony Manero here, or is supposed to. For Arlene Phillips' choreography renders everything drilled, regimented and joyless. This is dance-troupe choreography, a world away from disco, whose whole point was participation; reduce it to a passive spectacle, however glitzy, and you're left with nothing but pretence. Nigel Wright's arrangements similarly turn blue-eyed soul into '90s dance-pap: "Nights On Broadway" once had feeling, now it has a stomping backbeat; the affecting "To Love Somebody" (interpolated here from earlier in the Gibb brothers' career) is stricken with the Curse of the Power Ballad.
It's easy to forget that the film wasn't in fact a musical; there was no singing on screen. Here, scene follows perfunctory scene as mere pretexts for numbers. Both Nik Cohn's original story and Norman Wexler's screenplay contained a deal of no-nonsense grit; isolated granules survive, but everyone concerned does their best to ignore them on their way to the next, predictably not-falsetto, chorus.
The quote-big-unquote names in the cast make a surprisingly decent fist of things. Kym Marsh, formerly of manufactured popsters Hear'Say, is if anything underused as the lovelorn Annette, and Shaun Williamson forsakes EastEnders for lurex, a bad perm wig and an enthusiastic embrace of the broad clowning entailed in the role of DJ Monty. But as Tony, newcomer Stephane Anelli smirks where he should smoulder. He cannot suppress his smugness at being up there in the white suit. His purported intensity, like everything else about the production, reeks of bogusness. Even The Bee Gees deserve better than this.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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