Review: Walnut closes 208th season with dynamic ‘Saturday Night Fever’

By Christina Perryman

Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, chose a perfect musical to end the theater’s historic 208th season. “Saturday Night Fever” is an energetic, rousing production, excellently directed by Richard Stafford. “Saturday Night Fever,” featuring songs by The Bee Gees, is based on the 1977 film of the same name, starring John Travolta. Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti adapted the show for the North American stage.

The production focuses on Brooklyn resident Tony Manero, a 19-year-old who lives to dance. Tony dreams of life outside Brooklyn but also does not see a way out. He doesn’t particularly care for his job, lives in the shadow of his older brother, Frank Jr., a priest, and under the constant criticism of his overbearing father, Frank. Tony finally sees a potential way out when popular club 2001 Odyssey hosts a dance contest with a $1,000 prize. Tony enters, initially with Annette, an old friend with a sweet spot for the handsome disco king, before dumping Annette in favor of Stephanie, a beautiful dancer who also dreams of leaving Brooklyn behind. Tony is surrounded by his close friends, Joey (Christopher Hlinka), Double J (Joe Moeller), Gus (Raynor Rubel) and Bobby C (Will Stephan Connell).

At the surface, the show is about dancing and music, but there are deeper themes — fighting to survive, accepting circumstances beyond your control, striving for a better life, no matter what that looks like. There are moments of humor and moments of sadness, all set to a rocking score.

Alexandra Matteo, Jacob Tischler and Ensemble in Saturday Night Fever at Walnut Street Theatre.

Alexandra Matteo, Jacob Tischler and Ensemble in “Saturday Night Fever” at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Jacob Tischler is fantastic as Tony Marero. He is charismatic and even thought the character has seen a lot, there is a still a slight innocence about him. Tischler and Alexandra Matteo (Stephanie) share great chemistry. Matteo’s dance moves appear effortless. At first, I thought her accent was odd, but later realized it fit well with Stephanie’s desire to reinvent herself from Brooklyn nothing to Manhattan something.

Nicole Colon is terrific as Annette. She, too, can dance and sing. Colon gives a heartfelt performance of “If I Can’t Have You.” Tony’s family is well played by Fran Prisco (Frank), Sabrina Profitt (Flo), Christopher deProphetis (Frank Jr.) and Lexi Gwynn (Linda). Ben Dibble is unrecognizable under a magnificent wig as DJ Monty. Kathryn Miller turned a vulnerable performance as Pauline, Bobby’s on again, off again girlfriend.

The costumes were a nice reflection of the time period. Tischler’s shirts, and of course the iconic white suit, were perfectly chosen. During intermission, I asked my mom, who was a teenager in the 70s (and saw the movie 11 times in the theater), if she really dressed in the clothes costume designers Michael Bottari and Ronald Case chose for the stage. She said yes, explaining that she would dress up, listen to the soundtrack and dance all the dances.

Jack Mehler’s lighting was well done.

Walnut’s sets are always outstanding and “Saturday Night Fever” is no exception. The scenery, designed by Peter Barbieri, creates several diverse areas, from the 2001 Odyssey Club, to the Brooklyn Streets to the iconic White Castle. The Verrazano Narrows Bridge was breathtaking.

The music, under the direction of John Daniels, was infectious. Songs include “Boogie Shoes,” “Disco Inferno,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “You Should Be Dancing” and “Night Fever.” “Dog Eat Dog” and “Stuck” were very well done; the latter, which showcased Connell’s beautiful voice, was moving. Crystal Joy, who played Candy, brought down the house with several songs, especially “Nights On Broadway.” Joy is a powerhouse singer.

Choreography is a key element to a show that centers mostly on dancing. The cast’s moves, nicely choreographed by Stafford, were impressive. Tischler and Matteo are terrific dancers and the ensemble was outstanding, particularly Jovan Dansberry and Kristyn Pope.

The show contains adult language and themes and may not be suitable for younger audiences.

“Saturday Night Fever” runs at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia, through July 16. Tickets are $20-$95. Showtimes are 8 p.m., Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, and 2 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets or information, call 215-574-3550 or 1-800-982-2787 or visit http://www.walnutstreettheatre.org/.